An interview with Muhammad Kavesh
Our guest this week is Muhammad Kavesh, a Sessional Lecturer at the Australian National University’s School of Culture, History, and Language, Canberra. Kavesh’s research explores the entanglement of care and violence existing in human-animal relationships in Pakistan. His upcoming book, Animal Enthusiasms: Life Beyond Cage and Leash in Rural Pakistan (Routledge, late 2020), examines how human-animal relationships are conceived, developed, and carried out in rural Pakistani Muslim society, and the diverse modalities of interspecies intimacy at play in activities including pigeon flying, cockfighting, and dogfighting. Kavesh will be starting a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Anthropology at the University of Toronto in late 2020 and embarking on a new project that examines the ethics of air-surveillance through "spy pigeons" on the Indian-Pakistani border, and the moral and political debates this generates in contemporary South Asia. Kavesh's research has been published in journals including Society & Animal, South Asia, The Asia and Pacific Journal of Anthropology and Pakistan Journal of Historical Studies. With Dr Natasha Fijn, he is guest editing a special issue for the Australian Journal of Anthropology on sense-making in a more-than-human world. Kavesh has previously collaborated with several NGOs in Islamabad on European Union, USAID, and DFID projects.
Hello, Kavesh, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in human-animal relationships and the kinds of methods and theories you deploy in researching this theme?
Thank you, Sophie, for this invitation to contribute to your amazing website. As a graduate student at Quaid-i-Azam University (Islamabad) in 2008, I first came across Clifford Geertz’s fascinating essay on Balinese cockfighting. Reading the essay was so intellectually stimulating that I decided to use Geertz's interpretive method to study the passion of pigeon-keeping among people in rural Pakistan for my six-month-long ethnographic research. While writing my M.A thesis, I also came across literature on human-animal relationships in North Pakistan by the British anthropologist Peter Parkes and was particularly taken by his attention to gendered binaries in the more-than-human world.
I started my Ph.D. in Anthropology at the Australian National University in 2014 and decided to study cockfighting and dogfighting, in addition to pigeon flying, in order to understand how humans and animals shape each other’s lives and generate a relatedness of care and violence in rural Pakistan. I spent almost a year in the field, ethnographically studying the different cultural meanings associated with these three activities (I don’t call them sports), their colonial history and postcolonial continuation, their legal, religious, and political interpretations, and particularly, their emotional and psychological effects on people. Theorists whose work was seminal to my arguments include Donna Haraway, Tim Ingold, Eduardo Kohn, and Anna Tsing.
In the field, I discovered that people often described cockfighting, dogfighting, and pigeon
flying, as “enthusiasm” and “passion,” or shauq in the local language. To analyze this concept,
I drew from the theoretical work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on "flow," sociologist
Robert Stebbins on “serious leisure,” and the classical work of social economist Thorstein Veblen
on “conspicuous leisure.” I also found inspiration in the philosophical works of a 12th century
Sufi poet, Farid-ud-Din Attar, whose thoughts enabled me to acquire a richer understanding of
the cultural category of shauq. On a deeper level, I discovered that pigeon flying, cockfighting, and dogfighting were gendered activities and that masculinity played a major part in their continuation. To reach this understanding, I turned to the works of Raewyn Connell and South Asia historian Rosalind O’Hanlon on masculinity, and framed these various approaches within Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice.
In a recent article published in South Asia (2019), you explore pigeon flying in Pakistan through its relationship to “shauq” – a term that you translate alternately as “passionate interest” and “enthusiasm.” Enthusiasm is also prominent in the title of your upcoming book, “Animal Enthusiasms: Life Beyond Cage and Leash in Rural Pakistan.” Could you explain this concept to us and how, in your view, enthusiasm can help inform our understandings of multispecies relations?
The kinds of multispecies relatedness I discovered in rural Pakistan are generated through an entanglement of care and violence. Much like Radhika Govindrajan argues in her recent book, Animal Intimacies, these interspecies kinships involve affection, care, and love, but also violence, neglect, and indifference. For instance, in my research site, many pigeon flyers who cared for their pigeons like their children also forced the birds to fly hungry. Similarly, many cockfighters and dogfighters provided expensive and carefully prepared diets to their roosters and canines, and yet they also involved them in competitive fights. When I asked about this, they all said that was their shauq.
Shauq is a prevalent and complex cultural concept in South Asia. In this article, Kirin Narayan and I translated the term broadly as “enthusiasm.” Shauq, as ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin argues, lies somewhere in the zone between hobby and obsession, and shapes people’s social relationships, personal choices, and sense of well-being. There are shauq for animal keeping, playing a musical instrument, embroidery, flying kites, reading books, cooking, decorating objects, or even adorning one’s body.
In my works, I have argued that the shauq of flying pigeons, and fighting gamecocks and dogs, offers an important entry point into understanding different modalities of human-animal relationships in rural Pakistan. It reveals why and how people involve their cherished animals, who are raised and loved like children, in competitive activities to achieve honour, social prestige, and symbolic capital. In this regard, shauq or enthusiasm is not a personal idea but rather a broader cultural concept that shapes the lifeworld of humans and animals in different ways. By formulating and explaining shauq as enthusiasm, I was seeking to invite researchers of more-than-human relationships to appreciate how complex a process life beyond humanity can be, and to appreciate how an exploration of everyday entanglements of love and violence can help us better comprehend this complexity.
You are about to embark on a new project that explores the ethics of air-surveillance through "spy pigeons" on the Indian-Pakistani border. What are some of the key themes you expect to encounter in this research and in what ways is the field site you have chosen particularly relevant in exploring the militarization of non-human beings?
The pigeon is a war bird. Unlike horses, elephants, camels, or dogs, who have mostly been instrumentalized for their physical capabilities in battles throughout history, pigeons have been used for their cognitive skills in delivering crucial messages. For this reason, pigeons have been bred and kept by kings in many countries. In South Asia, for instance, the Mughal Emperor Akbar kept about 25,000 pigeons at his court, some for his personal amusement, and others to display his skills, authority, and power. In recent history, particularly during WWI, when wireless technology was not yet developed, homing pigeons proved an important source of communication with the army base and some even won medals for saving human lives. Later in the 1970s and 1980s, as Donna Haraway (2016: 18) notes, US Coast Guards worked with pigeons in “Project Sea Hunt” to spot targets in open water.
Against this backdrop, the news of Pakistani “spy pigeons” being captured by Indian Police for landing in
enemy territory raises several political and ethical questions for me. Politically, this is important because
India and Pakistan, as nuclear-armed neighbors, share a history of several wars and espionage since their
independence in 1947. Ethically, it is crucial to understand how the pigeon, a bird of peace who is loved
by both Indians and Pakistanis and fed on a daily basis near temples and shrines, can become an embodiment
of threat. I hope to explore these and other related ethical, moral, and political issues associated with
“spy pigeons” to understand how humans alternately or concomitantly define certain non-humans as
“peaceful beings” or “personae of threat” and how such interpretations affect the status, well-being, uses,
and values of the animal itself.
Finally, Kavesh, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
I would advise young scholars to start by exploring their own personal passion for animals, plants, the ocean, forests, bacteria, or other lifeforms, and then pursue that passion in a scholarly way. That means accepting the existence of multiple realities, some of which we carry with us and some of which our interlocutors teach us about, and then engaging in the broader process of knowledge-making with those whom we want to study - be they human or non-human. In this way, we can remain critical to all interpretations, and use them to strengthen our passion for the more-than-human world. Methodologically, I would advise young scholars to explore interdisciplinary methods and avenues of research. This means deploying a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches, integrating scientific interpretation with ethnographic and historical examination, and exploring various participatory approaches to sharpen our analysis. Finally, I'd encourage young scholars to be creative, confident, and bold, and most importantly, to enjoy what you do.
“Shauq, as ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin argues, lies somewhere in the zone between hobby and obsession, and shapes people’s social relationships, personal choices, and sense of well-being.”
“It’s important to understand how humans alternately or concomitantly define certain non-humans as “peaceful beings” or “personae of threat” and how such interpretations affect the status, well-being, uses, and values of the animal itself.”