Khajistan is a people's archive that portrays life as it is and not as it should be.
by Saad Khan
Erasure works in so many ways. Not only do the stories of people at the margins disappear, but the very knowledge that those stories existed somewhere in the first place is made to disappear too.
How can you save something if you don’t know whether there is something to be saved? And what if you are made to believe it isn’t worth saving at all?
It isn’t worth saving at all because it isn’t grand enough or that it falls outside the body of knowledge that is deemed to take us forward.
On their journey to their desired future, our peripheral visions were blocked. They said tunnel vision would do. They said this was no time to look back or look around or look in any other direction than the one ordained by us, the important officials.
What is really worth preserving in this world?
Who decides what should be preserved and what should be discarded?
And who are those that benefited from all the oppressive structures imposed upon the people by colonial masters? Those who still hold us, hostage, in their imagination and in our reality. Those who decide what we should wear, what we should think about, what should be seen, and what should be invisibilized. Those who are afraid of what we are capable of doing in the last hours of certain nights.
History cannot be manufactured inside a slaughterhouse.
When we find no room in the officially recorded histories, we turn to alternative ways. Our separate ways. Our lonely ways.
Who would have thought that the dead could come back and speak to us, speak through us, in a language you thought you had buried with them? It is time to grow eyes at the back of our heads, and destroy tunnel visions. It is time to add to the half-histories.
Your history has often gotten in the way of my history. So much so that only one remained. Your narrative didn’t survive because it’s powerful, it survived because it is power; backed by power, written and created for power, supported and forced down our throats by those in power.
We will never find a home in your books, your art, or your movies because we never found a home in your imagination, the way you conceive this world and its people. But it doesn’t mean you get to destroy what you can’t imagine. To kill that thing that doesn’t comply with what you think life should be.
How can we live and survive in a world where violent erasure has become a norm? Where violent erasure is cheered on and thought of as an essential tool to keep the ‘crooked’ subjects of the state far away from the national consciousness.
Thus far, most of what has been erased has existed only in the collective imagination of the censored people, accessible and yet intangible, a secret place at the edge of their subconsciousness - the most powerful archive of all. Such preservation is an act of glorious resistance. But now is the time to translate that memory into something we can see and touch and feel and pass on.
For the last 5 years, Khajistan has been documenting and preserving the lives, knowledge, art, and creative works of censored peoples in Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, with an intention to expand our archiving efforts to censorious nation-states that now form over the expansive lands of Arabia and Bukhara.
Khajistan archives whatever is left of plundered history and art and the sources of entertainment they have deemed ‘too vulgar’ and ‘obscene’ and not intellectually stimulating enough - just because they didn’t cater to their elite class morality or some form of a fabricated national narrative.
Khajistan is recreating and rebuilding the dead. We save and cherish the unwanted, the unnecessary, the unusual, the unsavory, and all those things that do not align with the definitions created and imposed upon everyone in these lands.
We believe that there is a significant gap between globalized understanding of the people of The Middle World (a term coined by Afghan-American scholar, Tamin Ansari, to describe the gestalt of land that has existed under Islamic empires in the last 1400 years or so. It’s also known as the Islamicate world or a world influenced by Islam - not in a strictly religious sense) and the actual lives of the people. Misrepresented and misunderstood, still seen in binaries introduced by colonialism, the peoples of The Middle World and their stories are starkly different from what is usually ‘thought’ or ‘assumed’ of them.
We believe that this has a lot to do with class. Only a particular class—the upper and upper middle class—is in charge of the accumulation of knowledge; those that turn a blind eye towards whatever happens in the street. That accumulated knowledge is then packed and transported to the global market. It is a hegemonic process.
The elite class strongly believes (and has strongly believed for years and years now) that the life, art, and works of the ‘underclass’ are an embarrassment and an existential danger to the piety of national culture. Thus, it becomes their duty to ensure that only certain knowledge about people is accumulated - anything that doesn’t align with national culture and collective morality is carefully disposed of.
And yet, there are people who don’t subscribe to state-defined morality and the arbitrary concept of official culture. They continue to pose challenges to the morality police as well as the globalized understanding of The Middle World - with their art, memes, the way they dress up, who they sleep with, the movies they see, and the jokes they find amusing. Their ways of life either ‘shock’ the people sitting under chandeliers in their drawing rooms or at best they are ‘fascinated’ by them. Most of the time, however, they are just outraged and appalled.
For those in charge of everything we do, the national culture is a homogeneous entity, something carved out of a ‘morality’ supposedly shared by everyone. That is why those that fail to live up to the moral standards introduced by the class in charge are seen as deviants who ought to be disciplined or ignored.
Of course, the morality of the elite class in places like Pakistan sprouted out of the laws introduced by colonialism.
National culture is thought of as an all-encompassing entity but in reality, it only encompasses the moral standards of the elite class. Everything else is dismissed, laughed at, and eventually erased. Khajistan wishes to put an end to this downright oppression and censorship.
The documenting and archiving efforts of Khajistan are a direct continuation of the essential work undertaken by scholars in what is known as the Golden Age of Islam, roughly spanning from the 8th to the 14th century. Inspired by the philosophical traditions of the Romans and Greeks that preceded them, the Muslim scholars of The Middle World in this period took an objective approach to the preservation of knowledge. They archived knowledge at a time when it was lost in Christian Europe, and through their works, Europe became re-acquainted with its Greko-Roman roots.
Such an objective approach to knowledge accumulation, however, was marred by a number of political events that happened after. The lives and works of ordinary people were lost in the larger stories of kings and queens and their closest associates. Lofty ideas like land, capital, and high art, among a myriad of other ‘important’ things became the priority. And then the introduction of colonial morality and legal systems further alienated and distanced the common people from the grand scheme of things. They preserved what they thought was only essential - a selective approach to accumulating knowledge took over.
We at Khajistan believe that archiving and documentation should be done without any moral judgments. To see and record things as they exist - without tampering with them specifically for the sake of ‘national image’ or whether and how they fit in the cultural machinery. To see people as people and not as ‘shock’ elements and ‘deviants’ that pose a threat to the foundations of national culture. We do not believe that there is such a thing as a national culture, to begin with; it was manufactured for the convenient erasure of the lives and culture of the indigenous people of The Middle World.
The primary reason for demolishing the arts and works of the ‘underclass’ is utter disdain for the material conditions they inhabit. As long as their work is seen as something inseparable from the material conditions they live in, it is looked down upon, or looked at and described in derogatory terms - it’s either too crude or too obscene, a production of chemical imbalance, something that has no regard for moral codes that ought to be followed by everyone, not intellectually engaging, not making enough sense, never making any sense, not special or true to the times we live in.
They have no idea what times we live in.
They have no idea that some of us live outside time.
The upper classes love the stories of upward social mobility as long as that mobility is attained by using the very tools devised by those classes. There is hope for the less fortunate, after all, if they deploy ‘our’ (their) models and work hard and don’t do anything out of the textbook. As long as they conform to everything ‘we’ (they) have set out for them. The same goes for arts and entertainment and every bit of knowledge that comes out of the marginalized spaces. If it is something that assuages the guilt of the rich, it is good enough. As long as it doesn’t challenge the shallow morality of the elite, it is acceptable enough. As long as it is not a direct product of the material conditions they survive in, ‘we’ will nod our heads and acknowledge their efforts. As long as it doesn’t make them uncomfortable…..doesn’t make their stomach turn…..
Make their stomach turn.
Khajistan believes in the freedom of creating more “unacceptable” art and then preserving it at all costs. One country, one nation, and one kind of knowledge/art is dogshit that needs to be challenged every fucking day of the week.
Apart from taking inspiration from the scholars and archivists of the Golden Age of Islam, we are also massively inspired by the unwavering spirit of the Khawajasira (the Third Gender People of South Asia) community who, despite not being allowed by our colonial masters to hold even a pen, preserved their complex culture and traditions by documenting and archiving knowledge through oral history and a code language. They protected their works in the face of a constant onslaught from those in power. Their subconscious was more powerful than the devious erasure designs of those either ‘ashamed’ of them or ‘afraid’ of their very existence. Learning from their informal archiving culture, Khajistan aims to make a fiercely independent hub of information to ensure that the knowledge and aesthetics of the underclass, the ‘marginalized’, are transported up in every technological upgrade.
Khajistan is that third space where life exists in its different iterations, unmarred by the binaries and stereotypes imposed upon them.
As the Islamicate world lost its penchant for research, documentation, and translation to find answers to the most pertinent questions of existence, to go along with its delay in embracing the printing press, our histories became wrought with one-dimensional, stale stories about those who could afford with power or money to have their says recorded. They only preserved and continue to preserve what they deemed important and worthy. The inability of further technological upgrades to assimilate the creative products of these cultures into its blueprint did not help. A lag occurred because the gatekeepers of culture didn’t want it, didn’t care, or were very strict with what they allowed to come through.
There’s something so laughable about the concept of globalized knowledge. It refuses entry. And it refuses to believe in ghosts, distant stars, UFOs, poets teetering at the edge of sanity, anthropomorphized cats, haunted trees, mujra dance, healers, and seers with range. If they could, they’d surgically alter the outermost extensions of our memory and consciousness. But, this all changed when the internet came along, especially when it became accessible and cheap, something not just for the few. The internet enabled people left out of the expensive history-making process to archive their stories in their own way and save it as digital memory. Even though the key to that vault sits with the powerful, there are still people like Bigo Live’s CEO, who fully understands the universality of a bite-sized video. He understands that history and knowledge of the world now needs to be more accessible universally. Not everyone can read books. And reading what? And by whom?
The early years of mobile internet in The Middle World saw the heavy presence of these ‘marginalized’ communities, going live and interacting with each other on micro metaverses across the globe. They even served as the perfect sample for Chinese tech companies like Byte-dance and YY to gather data for the same AI running on apps like TikTok and Bigo respectively. Such trends became popular in the West very recently, but they were a way of living in The Middle World way before the covid pandemic. Capital has brought in shine and glow and another class on these micro meta verses, the empress class. People who initially populated and whose data made these online spaces grow had to move, and they did.
Instead of Baghdad being its center, as in the case of the Golden Age of Islam, Khajistan is a borderless metaphysical existence of online identities, lives, and peoples of the Middle World. It took me years to trace my own people in history, and I do not want that to be the case for young kids and kids who are not born yet. That is why Khajistan needs to be supported to create an accessible parallel history of the masses of these lands, who are "marginalized" by those running the systems; those people who have been erased too often; those whose life and works have been subjected to censorship and mockery time and time again.
Khajistan preserves and digitizes audio cassettes, vinyl records, old film posters, magazines, books and VHS by working directly with small collectors, working-class artists, editors, researchers, and archivists in the region.
We cannot even make an accurate estimation of what has already been lost/erased but we are more than certain that we have lost enough; that we cannot afford to lose more; that if we allow this game of erasure to go on, not much will be left at the end of the day.
And what about the art and knowledge that wasn’t created at all out of fear of erasure and censorship and punitive measures in place? Who will make an assessment of that loss? How can we even quantify fear? How can we know about the possibilities when the limit was already set by those managing the powerful systems? How can you imagine freely when what you ‘might’ think is already a risk to national culture and state morality?
We at Khajistan do not aim to ‘rewrite’ history, we are only interested in the preservation of parallel histories - those stories that are not even considered a part of history by its tellers and retellers, makers and remakers.
Our archiving efforts, thus far, consist of an Instagram page that documents a range of photos shared with us by users spread across Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. From innocuous moments in the streets to popular memes, from WhatsApp forwards to updates about power outages, from the covers of old magazines to videos of all-boys dance mehfils; TikTok videos, half-nude athletes, feet, film posters, motorbike stickers, Khajistan sees and saves all. The content defies all categorizations, Khajistan is a people’s archive that endeavors to portray life as it exists, not as it should exist.
Some internet users have a rather simplistic understanding of Khajistan. They believe what we do we do ironically. For the sake of amusement or pity. Maybe because that’s how they’d do it.
Apart from the Instagram page, we also have a Khajistan Podcast (now Khajistan Radio) that features music mixes from old Lollywood films, Naseebo Lal hits from mujra shows, Farsi, Kurdish auto tuned songs and old vinyls, Christmas songs in Pashto and Urdu, and conversations with archivists and filmmakers.
The images and sounds of Khajistan are not a part of globalized knowledge and aesthetics because the lives and knowledge of marginalized classes are not part of the machinery that feeds globalized knowledge and aesthetics. When we think about our region in terms of the global market, only a certain, homogenized, stereotypically-crafted image pops up. It somehow manages to simultaneously deceive and satisfy the global audience - the consumers of culture who rely too heavily on the knowledge packaged and marketed by the self-appointed custodians of art, culture, and life itself. There’s no space for censored aesthetics in the imagination of the class in charge of how we are portrayed outside. If there was any space or representation, we wouldn’t have to add ‘censored’ before aesthetics. The state and its powerful agents have clearly defined how far we can go with our imagination. And they expect strict subservience to their moral constitution. What the custodians of culture feed the body of globalized knowledge then becomes what’s only essential to the state; how it serves the state-defined national culture. It all stands on erasure. And yet it continues. And yet they cheer on.
It is exceedingly significant to understand the magnitude of power held by the custodians of knowledge and aesthetics of The Middle World. Not only do they comprise a powerful/elite class, but also the backing of the state's bureaucratic machinery. To document and preserve unwanted knowledge in such a hostile environment then becomes a multifaceted challenge. This is what we at Khajistan have been up against for the last five years. And this is what we will perhaps be up against every step of the way. Because what we do we don’t do it to serve the agendas of any state or class-in-power. We do it for the people who live outside the imagination of the states. And we do it for those who wait in time, those who might not be able to trace their stories otherwise. This is why the documentation efforts of Khajistan are so critical for the objective accumulation of knowledge and history. That is how we make sure that no particular class or state dictates how art and culture should be preserved. Or seen. Or exist.
Apart from the aforementioned archiving efforts, we also wish to publish English translations of some of the books that got lost from our imagination along the way: risqué writing in Urdu from the 70’s Karachi - a gripping story of a middle-aged woman who loves drinking brandy and sleeping with young girls. Although the story came out in episodes in a reader’s digest, it was later collected and printed as a sprawling, 1200 paged novel titled ‘Challawa’, authored by Humayun Iqbal. Not many copies of the book remain today and it is highly unlikely that it will ever be printed in Pakistan again, but Khajistan wishes to preserve this important literature and translate it into English.
Then, there’s ‘Loose Cannons’: A holy bible of film reviews covering five decades of savory and unsavory celebrated, and ignored regional Pakistani cinema by Omar Ali Khan. And also ‘The Real Colors of Filmic Fairies’: an English translation of an independent book by Urdu film historian, Khurshid Alam, about the underbelly of Pakistani cinema, focusing solely and salaciously on the origins of female actors in Lollywood. We also wish to publish ‘The Curse of Homosexuality in Madrassas and its Antidote’: an English translation of a sermon delivered in 1986 and later published as a manual for madrasa teachers on how they can avoid being attracted to the children they teach. There are also a couple of significant films that Khajistan wishes to release as a part of its archiving efforts in 2023.
Despite being fiercely independent and self-funded our work has never stopped and never will. We are driven by the need to keep alive more than one narrative for our current and future kids so they can see themselves in these histories, their histories, and not just the ones funded and written by military leaders, religious leaders, and national 'culturemakers'.
We believe that archiving all and every kind of knowledge is tantamount to staring at the future, which at times might seem far and distant, but it is traveling towards us at a vertiginous rate. Maybe, in some alternate timeline, those in the future might be staring at us too, and we don’t want them to look at an abyss. We don’t want them to wake up screaming.
Khajistan will go on. Because people will go on to subvert the realities around them. And all of it will matter. For those lost in a maze. And for those waiting in time.
Khajistan - let’s play.
Saad Khan is the founder of Khajistan.