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Brown University

Bucerius Ph.D. Fellow

Stories of/for Repression, Relief, and Revolt: An Ethnography of Readers and Reading in Afghanistan


This dissertation comprises a study of American neo-colonialism in Afghanistan, as viewed through Kabul’s book reading culture. Post-World War II America has shunned older practices of empire while investing in a neo-colonial model (Go 2011), fostering states that are nominally independent but controlled by American interests. Afghanistan, where America is fighting its longest war, represents a prime example. Although neo-colonialism has operated as a key form of oppression across the long 20th century, ethnographies of places like Afghanistan, written from post/anti-colonial perspectives, are limited. Given that readers’ interpretations of texts reflect wider socio-political contexts (De Certeau 1984), I have chosen to read the neo-colonization of Afghanistan through its reading culture.

Books and reading have played a key role in Afghanistan’s modern history – from the American funded creation of Kabul University library in the 1950s to the USSR backed smuggling of Iran’s communist party books in the 1970s; from the destruction of the historical book bazaar of Kabul by the Mujahideen in the 1990s to the years 2018/19 where book groups are organized by Afghans coming of age under the American occupation. Based on 15 months of participant observation and more than 90 interviews, I explore the how narratives of repression, relief, and revolt are built in the context of book reading in a neo-colony—building new insights into Afghanistan’s study in the process.

Go, Julian: "Patterns of empire: The British and American empires, 1688 to the present" Cambridge University Press, 2011
De Certeau, Michel: "Reading as Poaching." The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984

Syeda Masood is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at Brown University. Her research focuses on the relationship between colonialism, racialization and culture. In addition to ZEIT-Stiftung, her work has been supported by National Science Foundation and Brown University. She is also a Fulbright Scholarship recipient for her Master Degree in International Development from Harvard University. Prior to starting her Ph.D. studies, she consulted for international development agencies and Middle Eastern and European governments.

Masood, Syeda: “He Takes Care of Me: Inter-Faith Romantic Relations Between Hindus and Muslims in a Karachi Neighborhood.” in Pakistan: Parallel Narratives, edited by Ayesha Asif and Jürgen Schaflechner. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2020

Masood, Syeda: “XQs IX – A Conversation with Julie Billaud” in Chapati Mystery – A blog on South Asia, March 30, 2017

Masood, Syeda: “On Being Non-White and Non-Neutral: Fieldwork of a Racialized Researcher” in Sectors: Newsletter of the ASA Section on Sociology of Development, Volume 3, Issue 2, 2016

Masood, Syeda: “Landscape of Modern Slavery in Pakistan.” Walk Free Foundation, 2014

Masood, Syeda: Gazdar, H., Masood, S. and Naqvi, H. “Bottom Up or Top Down? Exclusion and Citizenship in Pakistan.” Overseas Development Institute, 2013

Masood, Syeda with Haris Gazdar: Department for International Development, UKAID report: Impact Assessment: Improving Citizen’s Empowerment through Devolution Program, 2012

Masood, Syeda (with Richard Leete and Silvia Muzi): General Secretariat for Development Planning. Government of Qatar Report: Labor Market Sector Strategy 2011-2016, 2011

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