Ahsun Zafar is the South Asian-Canadian creator behind @brownhistory, the Instagram account providing “historical doses of South Asia” to its nearly 200,000 followers. Zafar curates a selection of images and stories from an impressively wide variety of sources ranging from fan submissions of family photos to televised interviews with state leaders. Through @brownhistory, Zafar offers a narrative of South Asian identity and politics based in empowerment.
Kajal sat down with Zafar in Toronto, where he now lives, to talk about South Asian representation, identity, and @brownhistory.
Kajal: As a member of the diaspora, as someone that does not necessarily have access to all the information about my heritage, your blog is really insightful.
The response is overwhelming. Every day I wake up and I get messages saying thank you. I never realized how important it was for people to have their stories told. And not in a weird Bollywood way, but in a normal voice. Which I think is the reason why the page is so successful. As a member of the diaspora also, I speak in that voice to other people who also grew up here. I’m speaking in their lens. They can relate to it, and they feel a certain emotional attachment to these topics.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I have always followed my curiosity. If I’m watching a documentary about Black Panthers, I ask myself, what effect have they had on South Asia? I would google it and then I would find how this group [Dalit Panthers] formed to stop the caste system. I just ask questions. If I’m eating a samosa, I’m asking myself, where did this come from? I’m asking myself, why is it shaped in a triangle?
Any favorite things you’ve uncovered? Or surprising?
There was a South Asian punk band in the UK in the 1970s, at the time when the Clash and the Sex Pistols were out. You have 3, 4 South Asian people forming a punk band talking about the politics of being South Asian and how the government is treating them like shit and they’re singing about it. I recently posted that. They are called Alien Kulture.
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Great Britain in the late 70's, early 80's was a dangerous time; South Asians being killed on the streets of England, anti-immigration riots, police brutality. Four friends got together and formed a South Asian punk band called 'Alien Kulture'. Their songs spoke about their lives and fears as second-generation sons of immigrants. Alien Kulture wanted to give the Great Britain a positive image of South Asians – an image where they were not seen as submissive, who were able to stand up and speak for themselves and ultimately, that South Asian had arrived and needed to be recognised as something more than just people who ran corner shops. The message that Alien Kulture conveyed was very much a militant and in your face – "here to stay, here to fight!". Initially they were seen with suspicion by the South Asian community, after all the punk movement was a white movement. But towards the end, more and more South Asians started turning up to gigs as the message started to filter through. Alien Kulture was the first of its kind and you can find their songs and interviews on YouTube. Source: The Guardian, "Whatever happened to that Asian punk band?" By Sarfraz Manzoor and alienkulture.org
Is there a time period you’re most inspired by?
Britain in the 60s and 70s, that was the first wave of South Asians in fighting for their rights. They were like the pioneers. That was when they first started gathering together and organizing protests, picketing, they were all over the UK and were very well-spoken, intelligent people. The pictures were very powerful. They’re dressed in suits and they’re yelling and fighting cops – I think at the time the law was you had to be above 6’3’’ to be a police officer, so all the cops looked really big. It was really tough to be brown or black or any person of color at that time. They would say blacks against police corruption, the term blacks was referring to brown people and black people. Everyone was united.
If you could move this project to another medium, what would you pick?
A podcast would be cool. I know which topics I want to talk about, I just need a crew.
I would like to talk about Winston Churchill. Every time I go home I have to pass by Winston Churchill Blvd. He’s glorified in Hollywood movies and loved in Britain, but no one knows all the things he’s said and done about people of colour and the South Asian community. You could say that he’s indirectly responsible for the Bengal famine where millions of people died during World War II. He won the Nobel Prize for literature for writing about his work in WWII, and if you look for the Bengal famine where millions of people died, it’s only mentioned once and it’s in the appendix. He rewrote history the way he wanted to, and now he’s glorified. There’s never mention of all the things he’s said, about Indians, about Iraqis. He’s said some racist comments, he caused a lot of pain.
He supported chemical warfare against the Iraqis. One day when people said that the Bengali people are suffering, they are starving to death, he said ‘why is Gandhi still alive?’ Because Gandhi was doing the hunger strike. He said some offensive things and here he is, just like Pablo Neruda, being glorified. Gary Oldman just two years ago won an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill. He’s portrayed as this loveable grandfather type, but there’s no mention of the colonial soldiers he ruled. I’m not saying don’t make movies about Winston Churchill, but if you’re going to make them, don’t make him a one-dimensional great guy.
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"…My mums mamiji , she was a badass in her days and carried a gun during a time where women were told to cover up a lot because her husband always wanted her to try new things and just be herself. They got married young and he was in the army and rising through the ranks. They led a good life and they fell in love when he saw her beat up a guy in college for harassing her friend." – submitted by @lazy.naaz #BrownHistoryPhotoAlbum
What do you think people are hungry for?
People are hungry for self-love. They just want to love who they are, I think we all do. I think your history is a big piece of you. If you hate your history, you’re going to have a hard time loving yourself. No country is perfect, no ancestors or people are perfect. But if you feel that there are some great things that came out of your background, then you have a certain joy and certain empowerment. There’s a cliché, it says that if you don’t know your history, you repeat it. But you can add to that – if you don’t know your history, you don’t get to repeat it. People have done some great things in the past, and maybe that can inspire you. Our brown community is very conservative, it’s hard to do something that is outside the norm. But maybe if you see your history and what people have done before, you can be inspired to keep pushing and keep climbing that ladder and follow your dreams.
Tell me about the #Brown History Photo Album hashtag.
One thing I realized is that there are so many nuances. We’ve heard stories from our grandparents, but these things are not in books. South Asia is so big and there are a million different communities, imagine the million different stories that are being told that we don’t know about, that could be forgotten. So, I put up a submission call and it was a big hit. It gives that human touch, that this is a person. And you feel more for it. Like having a wedding during the war – someone sent a story about that. Their grandparents had a wedding during the war, but because of the rationing of food at the time, they could only serve coke bottles to everybody, and they had their wedding during a black out at night because the city had to protect itself. You never would have known these little details.
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"…My grandparents were married in 1953. During this time, India was still reeling from the aftermath of the independence movement; famine, partition induced refugee inflows and food shortage were a harsh reality in post-colonial India. Food rationing was introduced in India by the British as a World War II measure but continued post independence. Strict policies were implemented, even during wedding celebrations. A maximum of 50 guests were allowed to be treated to a simple lunch, no dinner receptions were allowed. As a result, 250 guests at my grandparents wedding reception were treated only to a bottle of soda and no food." – submitted by @natashadsz #BrownHistoryPhotoAlbum
How many submissions have you gotten?
Tons. I have to pick them out and filter them out. Other than that, I don’t change the wording or anything like that.
If someone wants to post something, what should they send?
Send something that will move people. Or send something that will teach someone something they never knew before. That’s the goal.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Header photo by Oumayma B. Tanfous.