Benjamin Linder is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology & Geography at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His primary research explores the relationship between transnational mobilities, cultural transformation, and the (re)production of urban space in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Thamel—a bustling neighborhood of restaurants, shops, bars, dance clubs, street vendors, and hotels in Kathmandu, Nepal—is overwhelmingly portrayed as a ‘tourist place’ by Nepalis and foreigners alike. Despite this widespread reputation, many user-groups assign divergent and contradictory meanings to the space, and these cannot be so easily reduced to the machinations of foreign tourism. This article critically considers this common trope that relegates Thamel to a ‘foreign’ status within Kathmandu’s cultural landscape. After reviewing the history of Thamel, the article details the various modes of reiteration through which the ‘tourist place’ characterization finds continued articulation. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2015-2016, it then offers contrary evidence to undermine the assertion that tourism represents the most salient aspect for understanding contemporary Thamel. It argues that prevailing narratives of the space eclipse other modes of meaning-making, thereby impoverishing scholarly understandings and simultaneously obscuring the ongoing contestations over Thamel’s cultural significance. In so doing, the article highlights the problematic cultural politics of continually positioning ‘tourism’ as Thamel’s sole (or central) referent. A discussion of Nepali cosmopolitan youth highlights the very real affective significance that Thamel holds for this particular user-group. Furthermore, it illustrates the implicit delegitimizing of youth experiences that occurs through reiterations of the ‘tourist place’ trope. The article concludes with a broader discussion of the theoretical, conceptual, and political stakes involved in critically engaging with attempts to fix spatial meaning in a neighborhood like Thamel.
The author wishes to thank the Fulbright Program for funding this research. He is also thankful to Andrew Nelson for initiating the conference panel that led to this special issue, and to Mark Liechty for his continued support of this research project. Furthermore, the author is grateful to Heather Hindman, Bryony Whitmarsh, Andrew Nelson, and the anonymous peer reviewers for strengthening this article with their extensive comments on earlier drafts. Nevertheless, the author is solely responsible for any remaining shortcomings and/or errors.
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"Of "Tourist" Places: The Cultural Politics of Narrating Space in Thamel,"
HIMALAYA, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies: Vol. 37
, Article 10.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/himalaya/vol37/iss1/10