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Remoteness and ModernityTransformation and Continuity in Northern Pakistan$

Shafqat Hussain

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780300205558

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300205558.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Remoteness and Modernity

Shafqat Hussain

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter outlines the book's anthropological inquiry into the modernity and modernization of the inhabitants in Hunza, located in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan. Over the course of a century, Hunza has been an autonomous state, then a district and a semi-autonomous state within the British Empire, later a part of the Pakistani-administered Gilgit Agency, and later yet an administrative district. The people of Hunza have been represented by outsiders—including British colonialists, Pakistani state officials, and modern-day Westerners—as original Aryans, as slave traders and caravan raiders, as innocent primitives and healthy frontiersmen, as marginal citizens of the Pakistani state, as ideal hosts of global tourists, and as both indigenous conservationists and avaricious degraders of the environment. The chapter also looks at how some of the core ideas and practices associated with modernity and modernization engage with and produce the material and conceptual conditions of remote areas.

Keywords:   modernity, modernization, Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan region, Pakistan, remote areas, semi-autonomous state, British Empire

Late one afternoon in the autumn of 1889, a small party of weather-beaten travelers descended into a cold, rugged valley of the central Karakorum Mountains. The party was led by Francis Younghusband, then a young captain in the British Indian army and one of the greatest players of the Great Game, the nineteenth-century struggle between the British and Russian empires for control of the tract of land between South and Central Asia.1 Coming over from Chinese Turkestan, the party descended into the upper Braldu valley, part of the independent princely state of Hunza that today lies within the Gilgit-Baltistan region of northern Pakistan.2 There the party encountered a group of men whom Younghusband described as “wild looking …shouting and waving us back, and pointing their matchlocks at us” (1896, 260). These men were from Shimshal, the northernmost village of the Hunza state.3 Located between the fast-expanding Russian Empire to the north and British India to the south, Hunza was still outside the influence of both; its head was a belligerent ruler, the mir, who had succeeded his father that year by murdering him. In the context of the Great Game, Younghusband’s visit to this remote region was aimed at winning the allegiance of the mir and establishing a frontier against the southward-expanding Russian Empire. The Russian threat never materialized, but within the next two years Hunza would become the outermost post of the British Empire in India.

Almost one hundred years later, in 1986, another small party of weatherbeaten travelers arrived in Shimshal: European tourists. They had trekked (p.2) three days to the village from the Karakorum Highway, traversing narrow, winding gorges through a desolate mountain landscape before reaching the wide valley and green fields of Shimshal. One member of the party wrote in the guest book kept at the campsite at which they stayed: “Discovering Shimshal is discovering a lost paradise. The people of this valley show sincerity and openness not found in many places in the world. God be with them.” This comment and similar entries portray Shimshalis as peace loving and unthreatening, living in harmony with one another and their environment amid threats from the outside forces of modernization. The tourists had come to this remote community of yak herders in hopes they might find relief from what they saw as the excesses and flaws of the modern world. When I started my fieldwork in 2003, this view of Hunza still prevailed among the tourists I encountered.

While much has changed, much has remained the same in Shimshal and Hunza between the visits of Younghusband and those of contemporary tourists. The journey is still grueling. Although the region is partly incorporated into the economy and bureaucracy of Pakistan, the authority of the state remains in many ways as incomplete and tenuous as that of the British Empire. Now, as in the nineteenth century, the people of Hunza—the Shimshalis in particular—are defined by their remoteness; and now, as then, they engage productively with the discourse of outsiders who represent them as remote. But what “remoteness” connotes has fundamentally changed. In the late nineteenth-century context of the Great Game, their remoteness meant they were considered savages and dangerous people, the “other,” and in particular an adversarial other, as opposed to an alien other.4 Today, their remoteness makes them a different sort of other, an “intimate other.” Though the people of Hunza are still seen as geographically distant, off the grid economically and culturally, the defining characteristic of their remoteness is that they represent an ideal culture, living a way of life that is seen as threatened by modernization.

Edwin Ardener grappled with changing representation by outsiders in his study of the Bakweri of Mount Cameroon in West Africa:

To the strange arrivals the village was either a scene of “traditional hospitality of a simple folk” or the location of incomprehensible reticence. The very act of having arrived was its own justification. Years later, the new arrivals were a unit of gendarmeries, for this was the remote area of all remote areas for the new Francophone government (p.3) and, like all areas of this peculiar type, not only perceived to be Shangri La but also the home of purported smugglers and spies. How shall the inhabitants of a “remote area” evaluate the arbitrary love-hate of its visitors? Are alternating periods of “unspoiledness” and violence their inevitable fate? After the destructions of one generation of strangers how is it that they are asked to play the role of an ideal society to the next, before being unthinkingly redeveloped or underdeveloped out of existence by the next? (1989, 215–16)

My intention in this book is to ask the same questions in the case of Hunza that Ardener asked of Cameroon. Over the course of a century, Hunza has been an independent princely state, then a district and a semi-autonomous state within the British Empire, later a part of the Pakistani-administered Gilgit Agency, and later yet an administrative district of the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan. During that hundred years, the people of Hunza have been variously represented by outsiders—including British colonialists, Pakistani state officials, and modern-day Westerners—as original Aryans, as slave traders and caravan raiders, as innocent primitives and healthy frontiersmen, as marginal citizens of the Pakistani state, as ideal hosts of global tourists, and as both indigenous conservationists and avaricious degraders of the environment. The one factor that remains constant is Hunza’s status as a remote area. How the people of Hunza have responded to this “love-hate” relationship with outsiders and how they used their remote status to engage the outside world are themes that run throughout the book. In particular, I look at how some of the core ideas and practices associated with modernity and modernization since the late nineteenth century—exploration, boundary marking and delimiting territories, industrialization, nationalism, international tourism, and environmentalism—persistently engage with and produce the material and conceptual conditions of remote areas.5

This is, however, not only a study of modernity’s and modernization’s production of remote areas but also an analysis of how the inhabitants of remote areas participate as active agents in this production. I follow the general trajectory of anthropological theory since the 1960s, which has sought to dispel the notion that out-of-the-way places have remained isolated and unchanged, untouched by modernity (Wolf 1982; Wallerstein 1974). Most current work on tribes and rural people now takes for granted that such people have almost always maintained contact with the “outside” world in one form or another (Scott 2010; Dove 2011). Contemporary analyses of how remote (p.4) communities are affected by modernization and indeed are themselves modern (Piot 1999) and cosmopolitan (Gidwani and Sivaramakrishnan 2003; Marsden 2008) have informed my work throughout.

Remote Areas and Other Spatial Concepts

The analytical category of remote areas belongs to a class of similar and well-studied socio-spatial concepts such as marginal areas, frontiers, borderlands, and wilderness.6 The categories in this class have a common condition: they stand in contrast to the core cultural, economic, and political aspects of a society. The absence or presence of the state in these areas has a different logic than in other areas, although each of the categories is marked by state power to some degree. Culturally, the people of these regions are seen as the “other,” but this alterity represents multiple constructions of the “other,” each invested with different meaning. Despite their commonality, each of the categories in the class has a certain “semantic density” that distinguishes it from the others. Kirsten Hastrup explains that semantic density is related to “frequency, that is, to the question of which meanings will be implied more often than others when particular categories are invoked” (1989, 226). Each of these categories is defined and imagined in a slightly different way.

Marginal areas are generally defined as being out of the way (Tsing 1993) but not necessarily poorly connected, physically, to the center of political and cultural power. Sometimes these areas are geographically remote, but alternatively they may exist close to or even within centers of power: for example, slums on the outskirts of cities or urban ghettos. Marginal areas are often populated by minorities, groups that are disadvantaged and discriminated against, or people seen as criminal or backward (Tsing 1993; Li 2000; Cullen and Pretes 2000; Browdin 2003), though this often goes alongside their perception as sites of creativity from which sharp critiques of the dominant order of the society emerge. In comparison, remote areas are not generally defined in negative terms. For example, tourists seeking charm in their travels frame their search in terms of remoteness, not marginality.

Frontier areas are perhaps the most enduring and historically loaded category of those I have mentioned. They are seen as open zones in which central political powers exert influence and eventually bring them under control. Historically, they are thought of as locations highlighting struggle between civilization and barbarism (Curzon 1908). Thus their meaning is (p.5) invested with alterity and otherness but with positive potential. Since frontiers are open zones with potential for expansion, there are no “real” frontiers left today. This has led to a slight alteration in the meaning of the category; frontier areas are now defined by their ambiguous regime of governance rather than their formal legal status. Many international resource-extraction corporations and entities work through establishing special access zones globally, where they create semi-legal regimes of management. Now described as zones rather than dividing lines (Lamb 1968), frontiers are also thought about in cultural terms. They represent creativity, but the creativity ascribed to people of frontier areas is different than that attributed to people of marginal areas. In frontier areas, creativity refers to the human ingenuity employed in the struggle between culture and nature; in marginal areas, creativity emerges out of asymmetrical power relationships between powerful and powerless groups.

Border areas are defined by their administrative and political conditions. Unlike frontiers, which are seen as open zones, borders mark clear delimitations of territory. Thus, they represent closure. The creativity of the people of border areas is defined by their negotiation of two different legal and political jurisdictions, two regimes existing side by side in sharp relief divided by a line of border demarcation. Border areas are unique among the categories we are discussing in that they represent state authority unambiguously; the state apparatus is nowhere more visible and illuminated than in border regions. Borders represent the international nature of the state; hence, they are outward looking. For example, many international borders today are a result of continually affirmed treaties between two or more nations.

Wilderness areas evoke the classic duality of nature and culture. As with frontier areas, the meaning of wilderness areas has undergone a transformation. Traditionally seen as zones of danger, sin, and desertion, today they are associated with the modern phenomenon of nature management and conservation. They have a unique feature: they are the only category in this class of areas that is marked, at least conceptually, by the absence of people (Oelschlaeger 1991; Neumann 2002). Perhaps because of this, they are associated with place-based transcendental meaning and spiritual experience. They represent not a struggle between civilization and barbarism, as frontier areas do, but rather refuge from civilization. Politically, however, they elicit a cultural clash between the ideologies of preservation and utilization. Many wilderness areas such as national parks and game reserves (p.6) harbor important economic resources that are sought after by corporations, but many environmental groups led by ordinary citizens resist such a move. A prime example of this clash is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, where many pro-utilization groups have been pushing the federal government to open the refuge for oil and gas drilling.

All of the above categories of areas are important to my discussion of Hunza. Hunza was once a frontier, a buffer zone, between the British and Russian empires. Today, it is marginal to the Pakistani nation-state, and it borders with China and Afghanistan. Further, many wilderness areas in the form of nature preserves have been established there. However, throughout its history Hunza has been predominantly described and defined by its geographical and physical remoteness, a word whose “semantic density” is associated with inaccessibility and lack of connectivity.7

Previous studies on Hunza and the surrounding region have focused not on remoteness but rather on one of the other categories. The region has been the focus of anthropological study by Western scholars since the 1980s. Studies focusing on the “local” have looked at the pre-Islamic history of the region, examining practices “left over” from that time (Sidky 1994; Parkes 2000; Csáji 2011). Representing broader shifts in anthropology, there is a growing literature on Hunza that examines the influence of outside political, economic, and cultural forces. There is work of uneven quality on colonial and postcolonial state formation and administration in Hunza by Stellrecht (2006) and Sidky (1996). Stellrecht’s is a wonderful study of the political evolution of the Hunza state in the context of contemporary geopolitics. He argues that the Hunza state’s transformation, from an unknown mountain hamlet in the mid-eighteenth century to a substantial regional power, can be understood in terms of its important position on the network of routes between South and Central Asia. Sidky has used the outdated Oriental despotism theory (Wittfogel 1957) to frame his study of the development of an irrigation network and the rise of the Hunza state. Other work focusing on the contemporary period has emphasized the intraregional cultural exchange of art, literature, and religious beliefs (Marsden 2008) and interaction between local people and global Ismaili institutions (Steinberg 2006). Economic and cultural geographers have shown that the region has been an important node on the north-to-west trans-Himalayan trade route that connected with the historical and legendary Silk Route (Kreutzmann 1991, 1993, 1995, 1998) and analyzed the political consequences in the region of geopolitical realignment of routes and roads (p.7) (Haines 2004). Their works have been very important in showing the region’s historical connection with its neighbors and consequently illuminating the imperial and political formations surrounding Hunza. As important as this literature is, however, it overlooks the fact that, although the region is better connected with the outside world than it was during the colonial period, its remoteness, both imaginary and material, remains intact.

This literature on Hunza in the context of historical geopolitics and contemporary globalization represents an established trend in anthropology that seeks to dispel the notion that remote and marginal communities were as isolated and “stuck in time” as contemporary discourses have implied.8 Structural Marxist analysis (Frank 1966; Wallerstein 1974) rendered the association of remoteness with isolation meaningless, showing how core and periphery were tied in an uneven structural relationship. If early twentieth-century anthropologists constructed remote places as entirely isolated and cut off, by the early twenty-first century anthropologists were trying to convince the world that remote places are in fact connected and always have been.

While I agree with this analytical point, I also argue that despite globalization and modernization, Hunza’s remoteness persists, both physically and culturally. I am interested in understanding how, despite being engaged with the outside world, Hunza remains a “remote area.” The concept of remoteness as I discuss it in this book is first and foremost geographical remoteness. All places and people must exist in some geographical space. Phenomenologically speaking, space lends form to our thoughts. Humans think with spatial forms: the signs and symbols of the material world are imagined and invested with meaning. The space of imagination constructed for such purposes includes appropriate signs that embody the spirit of those ideas. Difficult and long-standing questions are matched by images of hard-to-get-to lands inhabited by ancient peoples. For example, questions about human origins and the quest for an ideal society often take one into remote and faraway areas.

But the history and contemporary ethnography of Hunza that I will present suggest that while the geographical remoteness of Hunza is a given condition, the way it is imagined has depended upon who has done the imagining and within which political, intellectual, and cultural context. So, for example, to the British explorers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Hunza’s inaccessibility meant mystery and danger, which spurred personal adventure, excitement for British officers, and expansion of the (p.8) empire. In the 1950s, Western medical professionals and farmers visited Hunza, interested in the methods of agriculture that had survived there due to its remote location. They attributed the renowned longevity of the people of Hunza to its inaccessibility, especially its freedom from the influence of industrial food and its systems of production. In the 1970s, when Hunza became part of Pakistan, its physical remoteness and inaccessibility were depicted by the Pakistani state in terms of “primordial nationalism.” In the 1980s, Western tourists described Hunza’s geographical remoteness in terms similar to those used by the Westerners who had visited Hunza in the 1950s. Also in the 1980s, Hunza’s geographical remoteness made it a perfect candidate for the creation of national parks. All of these different representations of Hunza, I argue, have been made within or in response to certain cultural projects of modernity, such as geographical exploration, creation of international boundaries and borders, nationalism, tourism, and environmentalism.

Remoteness and Affect

In his discussion of the production of knowledge about nature, Hugh Raffles (2002, 326) describes intimacy as an affect, as the “perpetual mediator of rationality.” The word remote drives from the Latin remotus, the past participle of removere, to remove. It is, thus, a basic condition of positionality, or relationality, measured/evaluated in terms of distance—farness or nearness—both in real (geographical) and in conceptual space. The semantic density (of the experience) of remote areas thus implies, as mentioned earlier, inaccessibility and lack of connectivity, which are affects of estrangement. That is, one experiences estrangement when one encounters remote areas. Thus, remote areas are marked by a unique estrangement; remoteness is to space what strangers or unfamiliars are to social relations. But not all strangers are equal or equally strange. Writing about this, Zygmunt Bauman states:

The “unfamiliars” come in a number of kinds, of unequal consequences. One pole of the range is occupied by those who reside in practically remote (that is, rarely visited) lands, and are thereby limited in their role to setting the limits of familiar territory (the ubi leones, written down as danger warnings on the outer boundaries of the Roman maps). Exchange with such unfamiliars is set aside from the daily routine and (p.9) normal web of interactions as a function of special category of people (say, commercial travelers, diplomats or ethnographers), or a special occasion for the rest. Both territorial and functional means of institutional separation easily protect—indeed, reinforce—the unfamiliarity of the unfamiliars, together with their daily irrelevance. (1990, 147–48)

Thus, according to Bauman, in remote areas the strangeness of the strangers and unfamiliars encountered there is of a special kind. I would add, following Ardener, that visitors are unsure, a little vague, about the real determinants of their strangeness, and this very condition makes the strangeness of remote areas of a different order. Ardener states that a remote area “produces that note of eccentricity and over-definition of individuality, if you like an over-determination—or to exaggerate slightly, a structure of strangers” (1989, 222). Da Col and Graeber further the concept of remote areas, building on Ardener, describing them as “singularities or pockets of social space inhabited by ‘event richness,’ conceptual vagueness or unusual boredom” (2011).

Building on this theoretical point, I argue that the history of Hunza shows that it has been represented not only with an affect of estrangement but also one that lies between the two poles of revulsion and enchantment.9 As Ardener says, “There is clearly something in the idea that distance lends enhancement, if not enchantment, to the anthropological vision” (1989, 38). By “enchantment,” I mean being smitten by an idea or condition and by “revulsion,” I mean a negative view, most of the times irrationally driven, of an idea or condition. The people of Hunza have been depicted as savages and caravan raiders, as ecological noble savages, and as perfect specimens of human health. In between these extremes they have also been represented as irrelevant and inconsequential to wider politics and culture.

Socio-Spatial Domains

My attempt to create a social analysis through the concept of remoteness is based upon a number of analytical strategies. This involves introducing eight socio-spatial domains in which the coproduction of Hunza’s remoteness is analyzed: exploration of space, categorization of space, boundary marking/delimiting territories, antimodernization and romanticism, nationalism, transhumance migration, international tourism, and environmentalism. Social theorists have argued that while space is produced (p.10) in everyday human activity (Lefebvre 1991; Harvey 1999, 204), it is more than just a container for objects. Rather, it also subsumes relationships between objects that occur in a space. Building on this, I argue that a socio-spatial domain is the relationship and hence meaning that is ascribed to objects in space and it is defined by the particular dominant discourse in which that space emerges. In all of these domains, Hunza geographical remoteness was coproduced with a particular discourse and attendant spatial practices. For example, the British imperial discourse was based on the idea of the spread of civilization, which produced the spatial practices of exploration and expansion in the nineteenth century. The discursive structure of British colonialism used Hunza’s geographical remoteness as a justification for its civilizing mission. Clearly, I am not arguing here that remote areas caused the spread of civilization. Rather, they gave an additional dimension to the civilizing mission. Spreading civilization, among other things, meant greater contact and connectivity to those places that had been isolated. The British colonial explorers, travelers, and officers in India who wrote about their experiences for the British public coproduced imagined remote communities of uncivilized and civilizationless people as objective realities.

The link between civilization and remote areas is particularly illuminated in the genre of travel writings, in which the imperial civilizing discourse10 is always the subtext. The demand for books written on the region surrounding Hunza, on the frontier, steadily rose through the nineteenth century in Victorian England. Mountstuart Elphinstone’s Kingdom of Caubul, first published in 1815, was an instant hit in England, indicating an increasing appetite for knowledge and information about distant lands. As Huttenback writes about the people and literature of the Great Game era: “The curious breed of romantic ‘men on the spot’ who guarded the frontier marches did, indeed, believe themselves engaged in a struggle of cosmic significance, and in this illusion they were supported not only by the writers of fiction but by a press and public becoming ever more enamored of imperial grandeur and of the irresistible strength of Britain’s arms and her national virtue” (1975, 2). By the end of the nineteenth century, various authors expressly acknowledged that such books were written, among other reasons, to introduce distant places to the general public back home. These places were often at the frontiers of the empires or interior hinterlands that had not been properly brought under control.

In 1900, Colonel Algernon Durand, the second political agent at Gilgit, the seat of British administration in the region, wrote in the introduction to (p.11) his book The Making of a Frontier: “My reason for writing this book was that as the story of the development of Gilgit Frontier, told in my letters and diaries, was read with interest by some who saw those papers, it seemed probable that its publication might give to those who have no chance of seeing the sort of life their countrymen lead on an uncivilized frontier, a faithful idea of what such an existence means” (1900, x).

In 1896, in the preface to his book The Heart of a Continent, Francis Younghusband justified the necessity of a written account of his journeys in the northern frontier region of India: “To do this in conversation [give accounts of his journeys] is, in my case, a hopeless task—because, for one thing, my experiences of travel have now accumulated so heavily; and, for another, I find insuperable difficulties in giving by word of mouth accounts of travels in strange lands unfamiliar to the hearer. At the same time I am always experiencing the wish that my friends should be able to share with me, as much as it is possible to do so, the enjoyment I have felt in looking upon Nature in its aspects wild, in distant unfrequented parts of the earth, and in mixing with strange and little-known peoples” (v).

Colonel Thomas Gordon, a member of the Forsyth Mission of 1873 to the court of Yaqub Beg, the amir of Kashghar, traveled from Leh on the Indus across the Karakorum to the little-explored region of eastern Turkestan, engaged in map making for the mission and playing a vital role in the Great Game. He wrote: “My book …makes no pretension to be in any way a record of scientific exploration: it merely relates to what fell under ‘every-day’ observation….The idea of writing it was suggested by my sketches forming such a complete series ‘from the Indus to the Oxus’ as to merit publication simply on the ground of representing to a very great extent life and scenery never before pictured….The whole of the illustrations (with the exception of four colored plates) are facsimile copies of my sketches made on the spot” (1876, v–vi).

All of the above quotations illustrate that remoteness was conceived and constructed as a space worthy of being narrated and written about. Why did the British feel the need to tell stories of places that their compatriots “have no chance of seeing,” “strange lands unfamiliar to the hearer,” that had been “never before pictured”? On a personal level, writing such stories of explorations heaped prestige on the author. But on a wider social and political level, in telling stories of these remote places, Durand, Younghusband, and Gordon were inviting people back home to imagine these areas and their role in the spread of civilization, progress, and governance. Reporting from (p.12) the remote corners of the empire, these authors gave the general public in England a chance to imagine an imperial vision in which remoteness stood as a sign of the vastness of the British Empire. The spatial practices of the explorers strengthened the discursive structure of the British Empire.

As the nature and intentions of British interventions and engagements evolved in Hunza from those of a neighboring power to an adversary power, evaluations of Hunza’s remoteness and its people, both official and unofficial, also changed. The discursive structure was now based on the threat to empire and civilization from remote areas, a shift that also changed spatial practices. Remoteness was now produced as a space of danger, and spatial practices were carried out to subdue this danger through the slow invasion of the Hunza territory.

Likewise, in the mid-twentieth century, encounters between outsiders and the people of Hunza were framed within an antimodernist discourse in which Hunza’s geographical remoteness became the location from which to launch a critique of modern industrial agriculture. In the 1970s, encounters between the Pakistani state and Hunza were framed in the domain of geopolitical nationalism in which the Pakistani state, using a primordialist discourse, linked Hunza’s remote past with its modern form. Hunza was presented as a place “saturated with nationalistic meaning” (Kürti 2001), yet at the same time as a marginal place that needed to be brought into the mainstream economic and social development of the nation.11 In the first decade of the twenty-first century, in the domain of environmental conservation, romantic discourses on Hunza’s nature and culture frame encounters between the people of Hunza and outsiders and provide the justification for creating and setting aside (hence removing from human use) conservation areas such as national parks.

Now clearly, it is not the case that during a particular period Hunza was subjected to only one kind of spatial practice and the attendant discourse. Multiple practices and discourses existed side by side in Hunza. My methodology in choosing a particular discourse and spatial practice for a particular period is somewhat simplified, but not arbitrary. I chose these discourses and practices because they do, in an empirical sense, reflect representations of Hunza as a remote area at a particular time. Also, I chose discourses according to their importance in constructing Hunza as a remote place at a particular moment in Hunza’s history. So, for example, the discourse of wilderness emerged elsewhere in the late nineteenth century but it did not become relevant to my story of Hunza until the late twentieth century.

(p.13) Remoteness and Zomia

The historian van Schendel (2002) argued that the development of area studies after World War II meant that certain areas, organized around global political formations, became the focus of academic study. Areas marginal to those central areas of study were neglected; these were often mountainous or otherwise hard-to-reach regions populated by people who had, for various reasons, escaped the forces of centralized power. Van Schendel focused in particular on the Southeast Asian Massif, the mountainous zone between China and Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Thailand, which he termed “Zomia,” meaning the place of the highlanders. Scott (2010) develops this idea, arguing that the Southeast Asian Massif is an area where ethnic identities become fluid and new identities are formed, as the people living there develop strategies to persistently escape state power. Others have argued that the key points made by Scott do not all hold up under scrutiny—for example, Scott’s notions of deliberate illiteracy, egalitarian political structures, and “escape” agriculture (Dove, Hjorleifur, and Aung-thwin 2011; Michaud 2010). As Shneiderman has argued in reference to her own field-work in central Nepal, “While for both empirical and political reasons the term Zomia itself may not be entirely appropriate to the Himalayan Massif, the analytical imperatives that underlie Scott’s usage of it can be of great utility to those working in the Himalayan region, particularly the emphasis on the ethnic, national, and religious fluidity of highland communities, and their agency vis-à-vis the states with which they engage” (Shneiderman 2010, 290).

This conception of Zomia as a refuge from a central political power was suggested for the western Himalayan region by Graham Clark in 1977 when he asked, “If these Himalayan people are in some way acephalous, then the puzzles of boundary definition, and the corresponding problems of what it is that constitutes a people, would become more intelligible” (1977, 344–45). Clark was investigating the most recurring theme in Zomia studies: the invention and fluidity of ethnicities. Clark was searching for the origins of the “Dards,” a group of people in the western Himalayas referred to by colonial writers as the original Aryan race. Although Hunza itself does not fit the description of Zomia because it had been a centralized polity since the seventeenth century, the region surrounding it does. But more important than the formal similarities are the substantive similarities in Scott’s observation on Zomia and what I found in my research on Hunza. These are the (p.14) strategies that the people of these places employ in their engagement with external powers. My study explores not only how the idea of remoteness is constructed through the material practices and discourses of powerful outsiders but also the ways in which the people of Hunza creatively engage with the notion of remoteness that is applied to them, using outsiders’ perceptions to further their own interests.

Studying Hunza

Hunza today is a district of what is now called the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan. The district boundaries are the same as those of the former Hunza state. The total population of Hunza district is about seventy thousand people, divided among three main valleys and into three ethnic groups.12 The total area of Hunza is roughly five thousand square miles. The landscape of terraced agricultural fields interspersed with fruit orchards testifies to the still predominantly agrarian base of the local society. More and more people, however, are now engaged in off-farm work in government, private, and nonprofit sectors.

The lower Hunza valley (in the south) is inhabited mainly by the Shinaki ethnic group, whose members speak the Shina language. The central Hunza valley, the former seat of the rulers of Hunza and the region popularly referred to as “Hunza,” is inhabited by the majority: Buroshiski-speaking Burosho people. Buroshiski is considered a language isolate with no connection to the neighboring Indo-European or Indo-Iranian languages. The Burosho people are thought to have come from Iran in the twelfth century. During the days of the Hunza state, they formed the elite and noble classes of Hunza, and the more powerful families were generally exempt from state taxes. Buroshos today are heavily represented in the several development and conservation NGOs working in the region, and many are also employed as soldiers in the Pakistani Army. Karimabad, the former capital and now the hub of economic activity in the region, is located in central Hunza and has become a popular tourist destination for both local and international tourists, with an ever-growing number of hotels, cafés, and shops.

The northern part of Hunza valley, Gojal, is inhabited by the Wakhi people, who speak Wakhi, a dialect of Persian; they number a total of about ten thousand in all of Pakistan. Gojal was historically famous for its lush and expansive pastures, ideally suited for keeping large herds of livestock and harboring good game, but also known for its harsh weather. Historically, (p.15) economically, and socially marginal, the upland Wakhis are considered a simple people by Buroshos of central Hunza. But in reality, Wakhis today are highly educated relative to the rest of the country, having taken advantage of education opportunities made available through development projects, and are engaged in various off-farm activities such as trade and tourism. Some of the most famous mountaineers of Pakistan come from this region, particularly from the Shimshal valley, the site of my most detailed ethnographic fieldwork. In the days of the Hunza state, the Shinaki and the Wakhi people were taxed disproportionately higher than the Buroshos of central Hunza.

Except for a handful of Shia villages in the central Hunza valley, all the inhabitants of the state of Hunza are Ismailis.13 Ismailism is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Its adherents follow a living and present imam as their religious and political leader, whom they believe to be the only valid interpreter of the true meaning of Islam. The present imam, Prince Karim Aga Khan, lives in Aiglemont outside Paris, France. In addition to his role as spiritual leader of the Ismailis, he is head of a number of philanthropic institutions, runs a large international educational network, and is perhaps best known in the West as a wealthy, Harvard-educated owner of racehorses.

The historical aspect of the book focuses on the central Hunza valley and the seat of the Hunza state, while the contemporary ethnographic research centers on Shimshal, a village in the northeastern corner of the state populated by Wakhi speakers. Shimshal is remote to Hunza, and Hunza was remote first to the empire and later to the Pakistani state, providing a common theme of remoteness through the work. Obviously, besides being populated by different ethnic groups, the two are different in other ways: Hunza is a bounded political entity, enjoying sovereign rule over a large territory and population, compared to Shimshal, a village that has never had independent political status. Shimshal’s status as a margin within a margin, and indeed a remote area within a remote area, adds to the complexity of the story and the analysis.

Despite the differences in the nature of the two as political entities, their historical representations share striking similarities. During the period of Hunza’s history I study (the late nineteenth century until the early 1960s) and that of Shimshal (the 1970s and 2003), neither place was accessible by motorized transport; the only way in or out was an arduous journey by foot or on a horse or other animal. Each place has attracted considerable attention from the outside world, despite or most likely because of its remoteness. Both have been considered Shangri-las, mystical, paradisiacal valleys, and (p.16) both have had similar relationships with external power centers. John Mock (1998) and David Butz (1992, 1996, 2000) have done significant research in Shimshal. The former studies indigenous conceptions of nature and spirituality, placing those conceptions within the broader community of the Pamir region, and the latter investigates conceptions of space and identity among the Shimshalis. My work has benefited from their scholarship.

Anyone who works with empires’ historical accounts of societies they have ruled comes up against the problem of relying too much—or sometimes only—on texts, archives, and memoirs produced by representatives of the empires. The only local history produced on Hunza was written under the guidance of a former British official in the region (Beg 1935). Separating bias from facts is a challenging exercise. Invariably during the course of my historical research, I sometimes found myself dealing with only one text on an issue or event. Bernard Cohn has argued that texts must not be seen as facts but rather be understood in terms of the meanings intended. He states, “This can only be done through understanding the shadings of language and the structure of the text, and through the development of sensitivity to changes in form through time” (2004, 48). The choice of words in colonial texts about Hunza shows such a relationship between language and meaning. For example, the British described Hunza’s raids on the Kirghiz herders as “caravan raiding.” The word caravan here was (perhaps deliberately) used to conjure up in the reader’s mind the trade caravans that traveled between India and Central Asia. In fact, the raids were made on Kirghiz camps to collect taxes owed for their use of Hunza’s grazing lands.14

It is, of course, impossible to relive the experience of visitors to Hunza and those they visited at this time. As Hastrup states, “We will never know the unequal experiential densities of categories and social spaces through hearing and seeing, because the social is no mere text but a lived reality” (1989, 227). The closest I could come was to relive, to some extent, the social world of remoteness through ethnographic fieldwork. By choosing Shimshal as the site, I was trying to recapture the feelings that my historical subjects may have had, and in so doing also following the traditional anthropological craft—that is, going to the most remote and isolated place possible. An added twist is that I am, as a Pakistani, a “native” anthropologist. Although this meant that there was no language barrier between me and the educated people with whom I spent time and we shared experiences of religion and nationality, Shimshal was in many ways as distant from my life experience as anywhere in the world might have been.

(p.17) Chapter Outline

The construction of Hunza’s remoteness in each of the socio-spatial domains introduced earlier is the topic of the eight chapters of this book. Each chapter deals with a particular domain and the accompanying discourse and spatial practices in which Hunza’s remoteness is constructed and reinforced.

In the first chapter, I look at the construction of Hunza’s remoteness in the socio-spatial domain of geographical exploration. I show that the explorations and surveys of the region resulted not only in acquisition of geopolitical information, including descriptions and cataloguing of people and space but also in an exaggerated sense of uniqueness; in the British account, the region was the origin of sacred rivers and of people who were the ancestors of both Indians and Europeans. That is, the people of this region were viewed by the British as the original specimens of the Aryan race. In their explorations of the northern frontier region of the Indian subcontinent, the British deployed the discourse of “lifting the veil” to construct the region as full of mystery and mystique and, hence, an appropriate and suitable candidate for exploration.

In chapter 2, I look at the construction of Hunza’s remoteness in the domain of categorization and governance of imperial territory. I look at how the use of discourses of “friction of distance” and “rhetoric of distance” in this domain renders Hunza a remote place, inhabited by primitive and savage people. The resistance of the mir of Hunza to British frontier policy and his political machinations with the Russians and the Chinese made him a quintessential savage who purportedly did not understand the benefits of civilization, which the British thought they were bringing to Hunza. The people of Hunza were constructed as caravan raiders who wreaked havoc on “trade” in the remote frontier region. The backwardness of Hunza, however, was not of a regular kind. Rather, these people were not just inferior but also beyond reason; they were the radical other. While the British viewed the people of Hunza as remote and isolated, the rulers of Hunza positioned themselves differently: at the center of three powerful empires rather than at the edges of civilization.

I then look at Hunza in the postconquest era of 1891, when it became the northernmost outpost of the British Empire. Using frontier settlement and administration as a socio-spatial domain, I look at the ways in which irrelevance and lack of urgency in the frontier settlement process constructed (p.18) Hunza’s remoteness. Yet the society of Hunza was also treated by the British colonialists with an air of exclusivity and a tinge of romanticism such as distant and quaint places often are associated with. After the conquest, Hunza became an ideal society in need of British protection and benign paternalism. Hunza’s remoteness was constructed in this discourse in requests by British officers for reenactments of caravan raiding and rerepresentations of the travel experience to Hunza from Kashmir. The mir of Hunza, now fully loyal to the British, consolidated his power under British rule and extended his authority over areas where he previously had none.

In the fourth chapter, I explore the construction of Hunza’s remoteness within the discourse of antimodernism. In the mid-twentieth century, a number of Western medical doctors and farmers visited the region, fascinated with the remarkably good health of the people of Hunza, which they attributed to the traditional methods of agriculture and food production that had survived because of Hunza’s isolation from the modern world. If Hunza’s location was earlier seen as being on the margins of—and even beyond—civilization, now it was seen as a refuge from civilization. But it was no ordinary refuge. It was depicted as a rural utopia, a Shangri-la. As in the past, the mir of the time manipulated outsiders’ representation of his domain as remote by playing along in a hopeless effort to strengthen his dwindling position against the Pakistani state, which had its own policies that reinforced Hunza as remote, even as it tried to connect Hunza more closely with the mainstream society and economy.

The fifth chapter deals with Hunza’s postpartition history and its representation as a marginal but remote place within Pakistani geopolitical nationalism. I look at how discourses of primordialist nationalism and development constructed Hunza. Hunza was represented as a region that harbored the origins of the mythical Pakistani nation. It became the indigenous face of the modern Pakistani nation-state. The chapter also looks at how the development discourse of an international NGO divides the territory of the erstwhile state of Hunza into central and remote areas and how this division is perceived by its inhabitants.

In chapter 6, I examine how indigenous notions of space and place are structured and how the people of Shimshal act and perceive their geographical remoteness. The Shimshali seasonal migration of yaks creates zones of remoteness within their own cosmologies. Here remote space is constructed through internal mobility that is a function of the location of grazing areas and migration routes and the behavior of the yaks. I look at (p.19) how Shimshalis construct an indigenous sense of remoteness through discourses of separation and integration in the socio-spatial domain of transhumance migration and pastoralism, which forms the basis of their subsistence and hunting practices. I show that Shimshalis feel that despite the lack of connectivity with the outside world, they have become increasingly vulnerable to the flow of ideas and material from the outside.

In the seventh chapter, I explore the encounter between tourists and the people of Shimshal during the last two decades of the twentieth century, within the domain of global tourism and mediated by a discourse of cultural authenticity and hospitality. This discourse is similar to the one discussed in chapter 4, when Hunza was represented as Shangri-la. At that time Hunza’s remoteness was framed as an explanation for its preservation of pristine agricultural practices; by the early 2000s, Shimshal’s remoteness was seen as an explanation for the preservation of its culture of hospitality. One aspect of tourists’ experience was that the Shimshalis “performed” the ideal host, welcoming tourists into their homes. Tourists believed that increasing accessibility to Shimshal by road threatened the village’s remoteness and thus its very culture.

Considering the socio-spatial domain of environmental conservation, in the final chapter, I look at the construction of Shimshal’s remoteness in two apparently disparate romantic discourses on nature. In one discourse, Shimshal appears as the last refuge of endangered species such as the Marco Polo sheep and the snow leopard. Shimshal’s vast pastures are rendered empty and pristine in this discourse, evoking the conventional image of the area as a zone far from the modern forces of industrialization, capitalism, and state expansion where nature still reigns. The people of Shimshal appear in this space as out of place. In another discourse on nature, however, Shimshalis appear as an integral part of it and, like nature itself, they also are uncorrupted and untainted by the ethos of modernity. I show how the Shimshalis try to articulate their identity with this latter discourse in the context of the establishment of Khunjerab National Park in 1975, which set in motion a long and still simmering conflict between them and the Gilgit-Baltistan Forest Department.

In the epilogue, I draw together the various aspects of remoteness that I have discussed in the book. I look at how the existence and perceptions of remoteness and remote areas have become inherent conditions of modernity and the process of modernization. I look at how some of the historical meanings associated with remote areas resurface in the contemporary “war (p.20) on terror” in the region. I conclude by arguing that despite globalization and the evolution of far-reaching technologies, both in a literal and metaphorical sense, the meaning of remote areas is changing yet again. Today, remote areas are described less by their accessibility and familiarity and more by their anonymity.


(1.) See Hopkirk 1994 and Keay 1996 for popular histories of the Great Game.

(2.) From now on, Gilgit-Baltistan and its surrounding region to the north will be referred to simply as the region. This region is the meeting place of the Himalayan, Karakorum, and Hindukush ranges. Further north at Hunza’s border, the Pamir range meets the Karakorum. This region has the highest concentration of the loftiest mountains on earth. Within a radius of one hundred miles, there are more than sixty peaks over twenty-three thousand feet. It is a spatially cutoff and isolated region, with few people and an abundance of crags and ice.

(3.) Hunza is also the name of the main valley of the region; however, when I use the term “Hunza” I will be denoting the wider Hunza state.

(4.) See Michael Dove’s discussion on these two types of other. An adversarial other is imagined in terms of economic and political interests, while the alien other is considered the cultural other whose economic and other characteristics are unfamiliar (2011, 231–32).

(5.) I use Anthony Giddens’ definition of modernity as it leaves room for individual experience with the structures of modernity at an institutional level. Giddens states, “Modern institutions differ from all preceding forms of social order in respect of their dynamism, the degree to which they undercut traditional habits and customs, and their global impact….Modernity radically alters the nature of day-to-day social life and affects the most personal aspects of our experience. Modernity can be understood on an institutional level; yet the transmutation introduced by modern institutions interlace in a direct way with individual life and therefore with the self” (1991, 1). Expounding on the role of individual imagination and modernity, Arjun Appadurai goes further in arguing (p.218) that the condition of late capitalism, marked by mass electronic media and mass migration, makes it possible to understand modernity only through imagination (1996, 3).

(6.) See, for example, Tsing 1993 and Li 2000 on marginal areas, Hughes 2008 on frontiers, Neumann 2002 on wilderness, and Sturgeon 2005 and Scott 2010 on borderland.

(7.) Edmund Leach introduces us to the idea of topological space, which represents the level of connectedness of the elements of a system. Leach discusses society in structuralist terms as a figure whose shape changes at different points of connections (1961, 7–8). Thus, depending upon the connectivity, the “shape” of a culture may appear different from different vantage points. It is in this way we can think of remoteness as determined not only by topography but also by topology, that is, the level of connectedness experienced in cultural vocabulary. So two geographical locations may be equally distant in topographic space from a third location, but the connectedness of the two in physical and conceptual space may not be the same, and usually a remote place is topologically different from a nonremote one.

(8.) Eric Wolf writes of “remote” and “isolated” communities: “Rather than thinking of social alignments as self-determining, we need—from the start of our inquiries—to visualize them in their multiple external connections” (1982, 387). Arjun Appadurai, making the same point, states: “Natives, people confined to and by places to which they belong, groups unsullied by contact with a larger world, have probably never existed” (1988, 36).

(9.) One of the most important characteristics of remote areas is the singular effect of landscape on human senses and thinking, especially on the “enhanced defining power of individuals” (Ardener, 1989, 222). This phenomenological/affective character of encountering a remote area is well captured in the following description by Robert Shaw, a British trader who traveled north of Kashmir into Chinese Turkestan through western Hunza and back again in the early 1870s. “On those endless plains you never seem to arrive anywhere. For hours you march towards the same point of the compass, seeing ever the same objects in front of you. If you discover another party of travelers coming towards you in the distance, you may travel for half a day before you meet them. The air is so clear that there is no perspective, everything appears in one plane, and that close to the eyes. When, after threading these interminable valley-plains, you descend again towards the inhabited country of Ladak, the first bits of village cultivation seen on an opposite hill-side have the most singular effect. ‘Cela vous saute aux yeux.’ They seem to come right out of the surrounding landscape of desert, and to meet you with almost painful distinctness …with an atmosphere which acts like a telescope, bringing the most minute and distant objects into notice” (1871, 8). The quote reflects a sharp comparison between perceptions of traveling to and having arrived at a remote place. It describes the feeling of irrelevance and boredom of “seeing ever the same objects in front of you,” and it also reflects the loss of perspective, perhaps because of the vast scale of the landscape compared to humans. But the scene of arrival at a remote place is marked by feelings the opposite of boredom. Here the author acquires a keen interest in the most irrelevant things and starts to take notice of them, leading to an increased sense of observation, the thought that somehow the social logic of this place is designed differently.

(10.) I use Stuart Hall’s definition of discourse, which in turn is inspired by Foucault’s conception of it. Hall states, “It [discourse] is a group of statements which provide language for talking about—a way of representing the knowledge about—a particular topic at a particular historical moment. It governs a way that a topic could be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about” (1992, 291).

(11.) See Kürti’s (2001) work on how mainstream Hungarians think of Transylvania as a remote place and also as a repository of authenticity and mythical nationalism.

(12.) By “ethnic group,” I simply mean groups that are differentiated on the basis of language and political relationship with each other.

(13.) In total, Ismailis represent about one-third of the total population in Gilgit-Baltistan, with Shias and Sunnis making up the other two-thirds equally. In Pakistan generally, Ismailis are a tiny minority, less than 1 percent, with the only significant population outside Gilgit-Baltistan based in the city of Karachi in the south. Most Pakistanis are Sunni (about 75 percent) or Shia (about 20 percent).

(14.) Moreover, other readings of the same event could also shed new light. For example, Patrick French shows that Younghusband misreported his own follies during his interactions with the local people in his published accounts (1995, 78). But such instances of alternative accounts are rare in the history of the region.