This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.
War and waring are extremely playful events. Warriors playfully lighten the burden of brutalities that either their anticipation hunts them or they are exposed to in combats. However, warriors’ playfulness is considered intensely transgressive fun by civilians and those disengaged from wars. For instance, brutal hazing among military personnel depicted in movies such as Full Metal Jacket (1987), G.I. Jane (1997), and Jarhead (2005) or documentaries such as Lohaamim (20121) has evoked moral judgment among civilians. They overlook these brutalities, and the hazing are funacts that pale away brutalities and inhumanities seen or expected to see in combat. In other words, one’s fun is brutality for another. Of course, this relative approach to brutality and inhumanities is not to approve or express sympathy but rather to highlight perspectivism in militancy.
I never took the fun seriously enough while researching Shia militias and following the everyday lives of Shia men who volunteered and joined the so-called resistance groups across the Middle East. Fun was deeply obvious and integral into their everyday lives at the fronts, training, and deployments. I took fun for granted. Two different academic encounters turned fun into serious anthropological inquiries. The first instance was when a female Dutch-Moroccan Muslim student who was a practising Muslim furiously walked out of my class because of the video clips I showed. She complained they seemed ‘fun, and the resistance fighters were not seriously engaged with their ideologies during combat’. I showed real-life recorded clips of Sunni Lebanese militants fighting Shias in the street of the city of Saida. They laughed, joked and took turns in shooting at the other side. My student did not have fun watching them have fun. The second instance was when I collaborated with Lara Stall (a Dutch dramaturge) to organise an anti-conference which made fun of the Munich Security Conference, where high-level statesmen talk about global security issues. Professor Nandi Sundar, who spoke at our anti-conference, explained that activists should not lose their sense of humour and ‘fight the oppression while having fun.’ These two instances lingered in my head but sharpened my attention to the word fun and instances of fun during my fieldwork and investigating what it means to do and live with inhumanities.
My research on inhumanities entails following the sociocultural acts that render people, persons, things, biotic and abiotic extractable, disposable, killable and unworthy of dignity (Saramifar 2017; 2019; 2021; van Liere and Meinema 2022). Therefore, I follow combatants and militants engaged in the resistance transnational networks among Shia communities in the Middle East and Central Asia to explain how socialisation in violence generates a waring ecology that imbibes everything and everyone in itself. My ethnographic interest in inhumanities took me to Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, among other places. I conducted fieldwork in Iraq, where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) occupied large territories in 2013. The Iraqi Shia combatants resisting and fighting against ISIS were my interlocutors, and I explored their everyday lives while they volunteered to fight ISIS. These men (25 to 50 years old) volunteered and raised arms to join Hashd u Shaabi, Popular Mobilization Fronts (PMF), in response to a religious ordinance issued by Ayatollah Sistani, one of the highest religious authorities in Iraq. Sistani called on any abled-body men to volunteer and fight against ISIS since the Iraqi army collapsed and abandoned its post when facing ISIS’ overwhelming attacks. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a paramilitary group and integral component of the Islamic Republic of Iran contributed to the training, organisation and deployment of these volunteers. IRGC suggested that the Shia religious ideology is the common framework for Iranians and Iraqis who should collaborate and mobilise against ISIS, which had vowed to kill Shias and demolish their holy sites and shrines. Accordingly, the pervasive representational discourse among the militias suggested that Shia combatants from across regions, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, joined PMF to protect the holy shrines and resist extremists who threatened Iraqi national harmony. Although any anthropologist worthy of the adjective knows there is a large gap between what is said and what occurs on the ground. Human Rights Watch groups documented the inhumanities and violence inflicted on Sunni civilians by Shia militias. Shia militants tortured Sunni civilians after liberating areas occupied by ISIS, and Sunni civilians were arrested and tortured as ISIS collaborators without evidence.
The cacophony of violence in the name of Islam and sectarian hatred was in the air of everyday life in Iraq. Although, Shia combatants who had become my research-friends were preoccupied with everything except Islam and sectarian differences. They were too busy staying alive, dealing with inflation and Iraq’s broken economy, and finding medicine for their elderly and their own injuries. They saw ISIS as the new threat to the stability of the fragile political economy. Initially, they referred to defending shrines during interviews and called it their primary motivation to join PMF in 2014. But they gradually became comfortable and familiar enough with me to tell their stories and reveal that joining PMF had nothing to do with God, shrines or sectarian differences. The story of Abbas, a thirty years old shop keeper in the city of Karbala, is a good anthropological lesson in finding non-religious motivations in religiously framed political violence, why following fun is an unexpected clue which reveals different hues of subjectivities and how to trace spectre of inhumanities in waring ecologies.
Abbas’ story helps to understand how masculinity, love, things, sex, curiosities and war are entangled with the waring ecology. Hence, those such as Abbas should not be reduced to their religious affiliations. Abbas’ piety was exemplary among shopkeepers in the market beside the holy shrines in Karbala. Most shopkeepers referred to him whenever they had any disputes because they believed Abbas was pure of heart and his judgment was godly. Referring to pious and elderly savants to settle any dispute, ranging from disagreement about football or which music is Islamic enough to debt and marital disputes, is usual in Iraq. However, Abbas’ young age (31 years old) distinguished him from the crowd of savants, and it showed his piety brought him such credibility that it overshadowed his age. I met him while walking out of the hospital as he struggled to climb the stairs. I helped him, and it took us more than an hour to climb fifteen stairs and finally take a seat to wait for the doctors. He was embarrassed, and I assumed his pride was wounded because he needed help, so I said with a humble tone, ‘you have suffered for Iraq, so helping is an obligation.’ And he smirked, silently withdrew into his own head for ten minutes, then began laughing while touching his right inner thigh and blurted, ‘you never would say that if you knew where my injury is located.’ He squeezed his thigh and pointed between his legs.
He was too high on painkillers to care for social etiquette. He explained how shrapnel had injured his right thigh and cut part of the pennis. He added with pride, ‘yes, it is that big.’ This introduction allowed me to know Abbas as a man preoccupied with things other than religion and politics. He believed his injury was due to the curse by his mother since he left home, closed his shop and volunteered for PMF after they fought over the woman he desired to marry. His mother refused to approve of the woman he loved. Abbas was in love with a young divorcee whom he befriended. They became sexually intimate whenever they could find a safe empty house, but his mother refused to reach out to the young woman’s family and ask for her hand. Abbas’s mother approved of his pleasure and sexual conquests but believed ‘his penis should not guide his marriage choice.’ Abbas found this expression insensitive and insulting to the woman he loved, so he left home and threatened his mother to kill himself. So he joined PMF that ISIS may do the job since he did not have the courage to commit suicide. He was injured in his first deployment.
He said, ‘my mother’s anger at my pleasure-seeking choice caused my odd injury. She was right; I did not listen, but the shrapnel made me listen.’ Mother and son made peace as long as Abbas repented, and initially, Abbas told me that he remained in PMU to prove his pious commitment to holy sites. For a while, Abbas expressed more and more sectarian hatred and repeated typical religious phrasing about Islam and protecting Shiaism from ISIS. It seemed the gentle, pious Shia turned into a firebrand militant. I would sit in his shop and observe his discussion and behaviour change which brought more business and popularity for him. I could not talk to him as much since his booming business interrupted our conversations whenever I was in his shop. Finally, he hired an assistant for his shop to handle customers, and we suddenly spent more alone time than before. He could let loose in the absence of the public eye, joke, relax and laugh, and one day he mastered the courage to ask me a question. He handed me his mobile phone and asked me to translate some information about Durex Vibrations Ring. I translated and explained nonchalantly and in the utmost clinical manner. I have learned to numb myself against frequent discussions about sex, women and various forms of vulgarity among militants. My clinical approach made him uncomfortable and silent. He seemed guilty; then he broke his silence by adding, ‘I am not all about God and PMF. I have fun too.’ He explained that he secretly continued his affairs with the divorcee, and the only reason he remained in PMF was that she found it sexy. His lover seemed to enjoy the appeal of the uniform, and Abbas entertained her interest to compensate for the erectile dysfunction he developed due to the injury. Although her interest has impacted Abbas in ways, he did not enjoy. He was annoyed by himself ‘I get hard whenever I see uniforms and think of what she would like. I see guns and rifles then I get hard because I think about her and how she likes them. I don’t want war-things in my bed, but this ring may change things for me. Would it help me to get an erection or hold it for a long while?’
It was difficult to answer him, but I turned it around and said, ‘maybe you just have to try to have fun and don’t think too much?’ I returned to the Netherlands the next day, and he messaged me a few days later: ‘you deserve the title Doctor although you cannot administer an injection. I just had fun with it, and war-things became fun-things.’ I was relieved that my ambiguous and vague answer saved me from advising him, but it helped him, although our encounter clarified how fun is situated in the lives of those exposed to death. Abbas and many other combatants’ idea of fun was notnecessarily ‘an array of ad hoc, nonroutine and joyful conducts… where individuals break free temporarily from the disciplined constraints of everyday life, normative obligations and organised power’ (Bayat 2013). Fun was integral to their exercise of power, living with and by power; for instance, Abbas succeeded in having fun when he complied with the image of militants and stopped thinking about war-things such as guns and uniforms through the lens of violence. He had fun and was able to hold an erection when war-things were not objects of violence, but rather they were tools available to militants. He complied with the regime of militancy in which weaponry and war-things are mere tools and not memorabilia of inhumanities. In other words, he could have fun as long as he allowed the war machine to imbibe him, waring ecology shape him, and he would embrace unreason (Port 1998) by complying with the Shia militancy’s moral authority. Asef Bayat (2013) pointed out fun as an expression against organised power, but fun in waring ecology is an expression of compliance with power. It suspends thoughts and meaning and assigns thinking and reasoning to the organised power. In other words, some men cannot “perform” their masculinity and have fun in waring ecology as long as they think and attempt to make sense of inhumanities, so they assign thinking to the organised power (i.e. war machine, militancy including paramilitary command system, religious and ideological authorities), comply with it to become joyful militants.
Bayat, Asef. 2013. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Second edition. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Liere, Lucien van, and Erik Meinema. 2022. Material Perspectives on Religion, Conflict, and Violence: Things of Conflict. BRILL. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004523791.
Port, Mattijs van de. 1998. Gypsies, Wars, and Other Instances of the Wild: Civilisation and Its Discontents in a Serbian Town. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Saramifar, Younes. 2017. “The Pain of Others: Framing War Photography in Iran.” Ethnos, December, 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2017.1415367.
Saramifar, Younes. 2019. “Tales of Pleasures of Violence and Combat Resilience among Iraqi Shi’i Combatants Fighting ISIS.”Ethnography 20 (4): 560–77. https://doi.org/10.1177/1466138118781639.
Saramifar, Younes. 2021. “Mute-Ability of the Past and the Culture of Martyrdom in Iran: Remembering the Iran–Iraq War and Civic Piety amongst the Revolutionaries of Postwar Generations.” History and Anthropology, September, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2021.1983563.