The twentysixth cup of nun chai


Ryan had been living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the last four years. He had been teaching English and completing a Masters in applied linguistics, which looked into the very recent emergence of Emirati identity.

As we sat together with the nun chai, Ryan and I immediately began speaking about what national identities mean.

I was most sceptical of the whole process; while I support Kashmir’s independence, I am also always thinking about what that independence will eventually look like. I wonder if there is a real potential for something unique to emerge though Kashmir’s story or if one day it too will become like most other anxious modern nation states – perpetually authenticating itself at the cost of cultural difference and human life. Deeply, I suppose I hope that Kashmir might one day become a model of what can exist beyond the conventional political organisation of the modern nation state. Time will tell.

Drawing upon his experiences in the UAE, Ryan felt it was okay to build a sense of national identity – so long as that process was transparent. He thought it was okay for the UAE to try to build a nation today, so long as it didn’t try to construct that nation on the basis of a common unified past that had never actually existed.

Ryan shared a lot about his time in the Emirates. He spoke about the rapid change that was moving through the region, the various ways people negotiated with modernity and how it was shaping their culture. Speaking of the affluence that characterises the UAE, an Emirati man had explained to Ryan that precisely because of the hardships their ancestors endured they now deserved this abundance of wealth – it was their right so to speak. In some ways this kind of justification reminded me of the way Israel justifies their oppression and displacement of the Palestinian people on the basis of the Jews’ own suffering and sense of placeless-ness. History shows how the victim too often grows into an oppressor.

Ryan had gentle eyes and we spoke for a long time. His wife’s favourite film was Dil Se and he asked about the representation of Kashmir in the Indian media and popular culture. Having lived in Australia, Indonesia and the UAE at different points in time Ryan knew a lot about different Islamic cultures and was keen to hear about Kashmir. As we spoke about Kashmir’s geographical and cultural beauty – I could see that when words like house raids, identity cards, mass-arrests, fake encounters, stones, tear gas and guns, rape, torture and death concurrently fell from my mouth it was something raw he was trying to comprehend. While Ryan was sympathetic, the reality that lay behind these words was something difficult to bear – even when one heard them from a distance.

I began to explain how the project began – my return home from Kashmir and the parallel rise in the amount of civilians who were being killed each day by the Indian security forces. When 69 people had died, I somehow thought of those 69 cups of nun chai that would quite tragically no longer be. Since then the number of dead had risen to well over 100.

Ryan said the first thing he had thought upon seeing the work-in-progress at an exhibition in Auburn was the significance of the cup in relation to Sufism and he asked if I had this in mind earlier. He explained to me that within Sufism the body is often thought of as a cup that is to be emptied of the self and filled with love, with God. Ryan said, in a way, he thought of these people who had lost their lives in Kashmir as cups that had been filled with God.


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