restricted access Who Is Chandni bibi?: Survival as Embodiment in Disaster Disrupted Northern Pakistan
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Who Is Chandni bibi?:
Survival as Embodiment in Disaster Disrupted Northern Pakistan

In our academic contemplations, we mistakenly take for granted the qualities that make us human.1 These include the very ability to form meaningful relationships, negotiate care, and experience a moral life despite adversity (Finnström 2008; Kleinman 2006). We are, however, inclined to describe the human experience in adversity far more precisely, clinically, and intellectually, allowing our scientific impulses to separate, categorize, and label. This includes the modalities of testimony, evidence, and reparation, which establish trauma as a valid moral category pushing for the political and cultural recognition of its victims and survivors (Fassin and Rechtman 2009). While it is somewhat useful to set apart our protagonists in calculated ways—to highlight the extraordinariness of their lived experiences—we may be unknowingly contributing to their dehumanization as somebody entirely else (McGown 2003; Swartz 2006). These faulty new personas we create are at risk of being noncomplex, quite ready for co-option by problematic machineries of humanitarianism, development, and social policy (Kleinman et al. 1996; Malkki 1996).

Admittedly we have come full circle, first by investing thought in establishing the very vocabularies of victim and survivor (Agamben 1998; Bouris 2007) and then allowing their absorption back into everyday sensibilities, fearing that we may have overlooked the ordinariness of the spaces where much of the work of survival is enacted (Baines and Gauvin 2014; Das 2007). Curiously, as academics we are engaged in an inherently fraught intellectual project that disembowels and defragments humans and then painstakingly pieces them back together.

To elaborate these concerns, I explore the life of Chandni bibi,2 a resident [End Page 95] of the remote Siran Valley in Northern Pakistan, and her navigation of the 2005 Kashmir and Northern Areas Earthquake. The earthquake killed 73,000, severely injured over 128,304, and affected some 5.1 million people throughout the Himalayan region.3 Contrary to the claims of her family and community that she had struggled with her vision since childhood, Chandni bibi insists that the earthquake made her completely blind. She describes this experience as a “taking away of light, brightness and illumination.” In order to complicate the victim/survivor binary routinely presented in academic, humanitarian, and other interventionist discourses on disaster survivors, I juxtapose the seemingly mundane details of Chandni bibi’s daily life with the calm, incremental, accretive violence of natural disasters (Nixon 2011). In this way, I reveal the “ordinariness” of survival—which is rarely achieved through some grand transcendent gesture (Das 2007). Rather, Chandni bibi’s story is an achingly human one, mired in quotidian details. By revealing how she understands her encounter with the earthquake, I provide an alternative to interpreting her experiences in purely clinical and reductive terms.

This paper is based on a series of interviews and ethnographic research conducted with Chandni bibi at her home in Siran Valley.4 Siran is one of Northern Pakistan’s several forgotten valleys, hidden among the cracks and crevices of the lesser known Himalayan region. It rarely appears on any map and is rather unceremoniously absorbed into the boundaries of the larger Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Siran is dispersed into numerous sparsely populated, smaller villages. Modest houses with mud and corrugated iron sheet roofs dot its mountainscapes.5 To an outsider these houses appear out of place, but they are rather strategically placed based on local understandings of acceptable topography, flat enough to construct a homestead. The terrain is rugged and homes are connected via narrow, makeshift mountain pathways. Residents overcome this apparent lack of connectivity with considerable ease, and do not let the trivialities of topography interfere with everyday life.6

Admittedly, I arrive in the valley with at least some disciplinary baggage, troubled by an unresolved past as a humanitarian worker in similar spaces (Aijazi 2014). I am here to understand social repair and remaking after natural disasters (Aijazi 2015). I have identified Chandni bibi using conventional markers of vulnerability such as “disability,” “extreme poverty,” and “old age,” arbitrary categories commonly used to demarcate and sift through target populations after humanitarian emergencies. Coincidentally, Chandni bibi is also considered “highly vulnerable” by [End Page 96] her...