Book Buzz: In conversation with…

10th February 2021

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Dr Muhammad Kavesh, CHL

Animal Enthusiasms: Fascinating facets of the animal-human relationship

Pigeon flying, cockfighting, dog fighting and rural Pakistani Muslim society—they’re the protagonists of Animal Enthusiasms by CHL-affiliated Post-Doctoral Fellow Muhammad Kavesh. And no, it’s not a fiction tale or a movie, but rather the amalgamation of two years of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in rural South Punjab between 2008 and 2018. The book explores how human–animal relationships are conceived, developed, and carried out in rural Pakistani Muslim society through an examination of practices such as pigeon flying, cockfighting, and dog fighting. We recently caught up with Kavesh for a chat on the unique themes and perspectives of his research…

Tell us about your journey so far and your research.

I completed my PhD at the School of Culture, History & Language in 2018. My doctoral project explored the entanglement of care and violence existing in human-animal relationships. I particularly focused on the rural areas of Pakistan where animals are sometimes affectionate partners and passionate companions, and other times treated in ethically complex ways. I tried to find ethnographic interpretations of human-animal relationships, focusing on how love and cruelty, attachment and indifference, and passion and violence affect people’s everyday social associations, gendered belongings, and personal prestige and pride.

Tell us more about your book specifically. How did the idea for it originate?

My book 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 dog fighting. It develops on the ethnographic study from my Master (2007–09) and PhD (2014–18) fieldworks to explore the transformations in more-than-human relatedness in a rapidly changing Pakistani society.

My interest in this field emerged after I came across Clifford Geertz’s fascinating essay on Balinese cockfighting as a graduate student at Quaid-i-Azam University (Islamabad). 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.

As I started my PhD in Anthropology at the Australian National University, I decided to study cockfighting and dog fighting, in addition to pigeon flying, 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, their colonial history and postcolonial continuation, their legal, religious, and political interpretations, and particularly, their emotional and psychological effects on people.

What are some of the major contributions of your research?

The main contribution of my research is to present a detailed ethnographic analysis of an often overlooked, and to some extent hidden, subculture of Pakistan. Pigeon flying, cockfighting and dog fighting are existing yet often invisible to most researchers of Pakistani culture and society. There had been no serious scholarly study to cover this aspect before, and a few journalists lightly touched these issues. No one ever explored the history, colonial impact and present diversity of such activities.

In addition, my book presents a holistic analysis of rural South Punjabi culture, including the oppression of Saraiki people in Pakistan, ethnic and class politics, gendered violence, poverty and hunger, beliefs such as about black magic and the evil eye, kinship structures, exchange marriages, rural ideas about of well being and happiness, and the conception of affection and violence—all through the prism of human-animal relationships. As an ethnography, it explores the wider culture, social values and customs, and every day norms and traditions through one single topic.

Thirdly, after 9/11 and with the Afghan War, conducting fieldwork in Pakistan became almost impossible for international anthropologists and other social scientists. This contributed to the dearth of in-depth cultural analysis of the region. My book is an effort to fill out such gaps and provide an examination of transformations in rural life through the lens of human-animal relationships.

Who is the intended audience of this book?

The book is primarily written for anthropologists of South Asia. However, I hope scholars of gender and masculinity studies, multispecies ethnography, history of South Asia, animal studies, and sociology of sports will also find it interesting.

Kavesh4

Dr Muhammad Kavesh

What was your favourite or most memorable thing through the journey of putting this book together?

Many. The fieldwork experience was life-changing. I was visiting the region where I grew up, playing cricket and dhappi (local form of volleyball). Yet, this time I had my anthropology hat on, which allowed me to pay careful attention to things I usually took for granted. I was now able to see things differently. Also, during the fieldwork, the experience of witnessing violence against animals, women, and lower class and caste people was personally disturbing. Re-adapting to village life was initially difficult; however, soon I made many friendships that I hold dear to date.

After the award of my PhD, converting the thesis into a book was a great challenge. My PhD supervisors, Assa Doron, Kirin Narayan and Natasha Fijn were always there when I needed any support, ideas or inspiration. The blessing of having an office space in Coombs and library access at ANU was so rewarding. And then the support of my book-series editors, Rebecca Cassidy, Garry Marvin and Radhika Govindrajan was so helpful. I was also fortunate to have the regular support of many colleagues and friends in Australia and Pakistan. They all made this experience extremely memorable, and I cannot thank them enough.

I got married and became a father while working on this project. Through all the highs and lows, my wife, Zara remained a constant source of strength. Another favourite memory while writing this book was the presence of my mother in Canberra, her prayers and wishes eased all my troubles.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

While developing arguments about Pakistani culture and society, people’s enthusiasms and everyday passions—as well as their aspirations to seek gendered and personal rewards from animal activities—I sometimes had to sacrifice the animals’ point of view—their suffering, struggle and even injuries. The person inside me wanted to write about the ethics of relating with and treating more-than-humans. But this was a completely different argument, one that I could not possibly work with my existing argument. Such challenges persisted, but I am keen to carry out my next research project from the animal’s point of view.

What’s the plan for the future?

I am currently working on the case of ‘spy pigeons' in the context of South Asia. This book project explores how pigeons—a bird revered in India and Pakistan, considered a symbol of love and peace in Abrahamic religions and Hinduism, and fed by Muslims and Hindus near shrines and temples—can evoke feelings of hatred, hostility and suspicion. I am grateful to have received some interest from publishers about this project.

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