Echoes of Dharamsala

*Part of my extensive series on Tibet*

Diehl cover

  • Keila Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala: music in the life of a Tibetan refugee community (2002)

is the fruit of ten months that the author spent from 1994 to 1995 in the hillside capital of the Tibetan government-in-exile in northwest India, “perched in the middle of one of the world’s political hotspots”. Despite the presence of the revered Dalai Lama, Dharamsala is no mystical paradise.

Diehl 37

As Diehl explains in the Introduction, Dharamsala felt somewhat over-subscribed as a topic, and she had hoped to study Tibetan refugee communities elsewhere in India; but she was drawn back there by circumstance, and soon became a participant observer playing keyboards with The Yak Band. This informs her thesis on the performance and reception of popular music and song by Tibetan refugees—including traditional folk genres, Tibetan songs perceived as “Chinese”, Hindi film songs, Western rock, reggae, and blues, new Tibetan music, and Nepali folk and pop.

In the Introduction she notes a contradiction between scholarship on displacement and the people whose experiences generated it. Whereas anthropological theory tends to celebrate “transgression, displacement, innovation, resistance, and hybridity”,

it became clear that many of the displaced people I had chosen to live among and work with were, in fact, striving heartily for emplacement, cultural preservation, and ethnic purity, even though keeping these dreams alive also meant consciously keeping alive the pain and loss inherent in the exile experience rather than letting or helping these wounds heal.

Further, much of the scholarship that does include ethnographic case studies tends to emphasise

the richness, multivocality, dialogism, and creativity of their subjects rather than their deep conservatism, xenophobia, and dreams of emplacement.

Diehl gives cogent answers, in turn, to “Why study refugees?”, “Why refugee music?”, “Why refugee youth?”, and “Why Tibetans?”. Exploring “zones of invisibility” (and inaudibility), she seeks to

fill in some of the gaps left by the many idealised accounts of Tibetans. Through its generally uncomplicated celebration of political solidarity and cultural preservation in exile, much of the available information on Tibetan refugees exhibits a troubling collusion with the community’s own idealised self-image. […]

After four decades in exile, many Tibetans realise not only that the utopian dream is still an important source of hope but also that it can be a source of disappointment and frustration that has very real effects on individuals and communities who are raised to feel responsible for its actual, though unlikely, realisation.

She introduces the “Shangri-La trope”, analysed by Bishop, Lopez, and Schell, and notes the “disciplinary bias within Tibetan Studies towards the monastic culture of pre-1950 Tibet”—a bias that applied also to Tibetan music, largely interpreted as “Buddhist ritual music” until the mid-1970s (cf. Labrang 1). Since Diehl wrote the book, the whole field has been transformed by new generations of scholars at last able to document Tibetan culture within the PRC.

She notes Dharamsala’s position at the “literal yet liminal intersection” of a “geographical and conceptual mandala”:

Diehl 27.1

Diehl 27.2

What complicates this apparently cut-and-dry native point of view is the fact that […] sounds and musical boundaries are, ultimately, immaterial and are therefore felt and experienced in personal and varied ways.

Chapter 1, “Dharamsala: a resting place to pass through”, depicts the town as both a centre and a limen, a destination for pilgrimage which refugees hope eventually to leave. Besides them, the ever-shifting population also includes civil servants, nomads, traders, aid workers, dharma students, and tourists.

Members of the oldest generation in exile came to India from Nepal, Bhutan, or India’s North East Frontier Area (now Arunachal Pradesh) after escaping from Tibet in 1959 on foot over the Himalayas, travelling in family groups under the cover of darkness, following their leader into exile. Since then, for forty years, Tibetans have continued to escape from their homeland in a procession whose flow varies with the seasonal weather, the attentiveness of Nepali border patrols, the effects of specific Chinese policies in Tibet, and the varying intensity with which these policies are implemented in different regions of the country and different times.

Diehl identifies three general waves of migration:

The first escapees (between 1959 and the mid-1960s) came from Lhasa, Tingri, or other southern border areas of the country. Few Tibetans escaped during the worst years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), but in the 1980s a second wave of refugees, a number of whom had been imprisoned during the first decades of Tibet’s occupation, fled Tibet. Since the early 1990s, a third wave of refugees from Amdo in the northeast, known as sar jorpa (“new arrivals”), have arrived in exile, putting the greatest demands on the government-in-exile’s resources and institutions since the first months spent establishing tent camps, clinics, and schools in 1959.

Besides regional aspects, I note that there are political and class considerations here too, as the old generation that included aristocrats and former monks from the Lhasa region was replaced by commoners (and former monks) from a wider area, brought up under the routine degradations of de facto Chinese occupation. At first the shared plight of exile tended to homogenise interactions:

It was irrelevant, even laughable, to insist on special privileges or respect because one’s father had been a regional chieftain in Tibet, when you had no more power to set foot in Tibet than your neighbour, the son of a petty trader from Lhasa.

But social, regional, and sectarian divisions later re-emerged.

Some refugees in the diaspora avoid Dharamsala altogether, specifically because of the ambition, materialism, self-consciousness, and conservatism engendered by its status as an international hub of activism, tourism, and bureaucracy and because of its overcrowdedness and uncleanliness.

Refugees (and the Indian population) depend to a large extent on the influx of tourists, including the transient “dharma bums” and those on more committed spiritual or welfare missions. The new refugees find themselves

outside the rigid structures of Tibetan society, perched at the margins of Indian society, and inferior to all around them owing to their utter dependence.

Chapter 2 explores the notions of “tradition” and the “rich cultural heritage of Tibet”, which “authenticate the past and largely discredit the present”. The chapter opens at a Tibetan wedding, with a group of older chang-ma women singing songs of blessing and offering barley beer in toasts to the couple and the guests.

Diehl 58

Groups like this had been common in Tibet before 1959, but only became popular in Dharamsala in the 1980s. The women performing for the wedding had all fled from the Tingri region of Tibet, working in Nepal as day labourers, petty traders, or wool spinners before reaching Dharamsala. They had recently pooled their memories of weddings in old Tibet to create a suitable repertoire.

At some remove from such non-institutional groups, Diehl examines the role of government-sponsored community and school events in “cultural preservation”, headed by the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA).

In exile the official drive was inspired both by the dilution of Tibetan culture after exposure to Indian society and by fears over the destruction of traditional culture inside Tibet after 1959 (this mantra, still repeated by rote, probably needs refining in view of research on the state of performing traditions in Tibet since the 1980s). The reified cause of “preservation” required perpetuating a sense of “loss and victimisation” among the second and third generations, who had no experience of the homeland.

But the nostalgic canonisation of certain genres

does little to account for (or respect) the complex mosaic of cultural practices that are continually being constructed in exile through the choices and circumstances of even the most “traditional” Tibetan refugees and that constitute their day-to-day realities.

Nor does it reflect the diversity of culture inside Tibet before the 1950s, and since the 1980s.

Diehl scrutinises the annual ache-lhamo festival of the TIPA Tibetan opera troupe (see here, a post enriched by wonderful videos), as well as TIPA’s international touring activities. But locals note that the school appears demoralised, its performances lacking vitality—the emphasis on preservation apparently leading to “cultural death”, just as in China.

Diehl notes the uncomfortable position of the sar-jorpa “new arrivals” from Tibet:

Rather than being valued as fresh connections to the increasingly remote homeland, as might be expected, these Tibetans more frequently cause disappointment by failing to validate the hopeful dreams of those living in exile. Instead, their apparent foreignness only confirms dire thirdhand news of cultural change (namely, sinicization) in Tibet.

Still, educated Tibetans in Dharamsala told Diehl that

the children escaping nowadays from Tibet (rather than those carefully schooled in exile) are the most likely to maintain a strong commitment to the “Tibetan Cause”, since they have personally experienced the consequences of living under Chinese occupation.

She illustrates the conflict with a telling scene at the Losar New Year’s gatherings. Besides the chang ma singing songs of praise and dancing, a group of new arrivals from Tibet were also taking turns to sing namthar arias from ache-lhamo opera, with loud amplification—a performance shunned by the locals.

It seemed a perfect illustration of the separate worlds refugee Tibetans and Tibetans raised in the homeland inhabit, even when living and dreaming in the same close physical proximity. No Tibetan in the temple that morning wanted to be celebrating another new year where they were, and all knew exactly where they preferred to be, but the differences between their relationships to those reviled and desired places [were] being expressed in ways that exaggerated the temporal, spatial, and cultural experiences that had been their karmic destiny, seemingly muting their commonality.

Diehl goes on to ponder the competing claims to cultural authority in Tibet and in exile. The singers visiting from Tibet were not making explicit claims to “tradition”, but, rather,

employing the range of their musical knowledge […] to express conservative and religious sentiments. Because they had recently come from the physical homeland, their potential space-based authenticity was actually a liability in the context of Dharamsala rather than a resource for claims to cultural propriety. […]

Young Tibetans in Tibet and in exile are not faced with a simple either-or choice between traditional or modern “styles”. […] It is difficult to assess most traditions as simply “preserved” or “lost”. *

Still, cultural pundits in Dharamsala see the risk of Chinese influence as more pernicious than that of other kinds of foreign music such as rock-and-roll. Exiles have criticised the vocal timbre of Dadon, a Tibetan pop singer who escaped Tibet in 1992, as sounding “too Chinese”; even more strident was the controversy over Sister drum.

Chapter 3, “Taking refuge in (and from) India: film songs, angry mobs, and other exilic pleasures and fears”, discusses refugee life in the here and now of contemporary India, when

few voices in the conversation grapple with, or even acknowledge, the Indian context in which the exile experience is actually taking place for the great majority of Tibetan refugees.

The shared disdain of many Westerners and Tibetan refugees for the day-to-day realities of India—hardship, corruption, poverty, and filth—is an important ingredient in the often-romantic collusion between these groups.

The Indians’ resentment of the refugees is “restrained by considerations of economic self-interest”, but ethnic conflicts sometimes arise, as in April 1994, when a fight between a Tibetan and a local gaddi led to a rampage against the refugees. The Dalai Lama’s offer to move out from Dharamsala was clearly in no-one’s interest, and so peace-making gestures were made.

Living in India, Tibetan refugees are no more immune than the rest of the subcontinent to the ubiquitous Hindi film music, with all its “fantastic dreams of sin and modernity”, in Das Gupta’s words. Commenting on the wider consumption and production of such songs among Tibetan refugees, Diehl reflects in a well-theorised section on the similarities and differences between the original and the mime.

Although Hindi film songs had long been adopted by Tibetan refugees as “spice” (or “salt-and-pepper”) at weddings and other events, they were to make a more conflicted choice for Tibetan rock groups. Diehl takes part in the Yak Band as they perform concerts that include some such songs, featuring the demure young schoolteacher Tenzin Dolma, who imitates the voice of Lata Mangeshkar, “the Nightingale of India”. Tibetans’ enjoyment of this repertoire is a guilty pleasure. The Yak band were aware of the risk that the “salt-and-pepper” might become “bread and butter”.

Having added India into the mix, Diehl reflects further on her time with the Yak Band in Chapter 4, “The West as surrogate Shangri-La: rock and roll and rangzen as style and ideology”, exploring the often-idealised romance with the West, and the quest for independence.

Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton have been part of the lives of Tibetans born in exile since childhood. Western rock brings as much cultural baggage as the soundscapes of traditional Tibet, modern India, and socialist China. Diehl notes the scholarly tendency to interpret youth culture in terms of “resistance” or “deviance”, downplaying cases where it may be conservative or centripetal. Referring to Bishop and Lopez, she surveys the Western fascination with first the “spirituality” of Tibet and then the high profile of the Tibetan political cause.

Social divisions in Dharamsala are further amplified when Tibetans who have gained residency in the USA return for a visit; those still left behind in India, not realising the hardships their fellow Tibetans have had to endure in the States to gain a foothold there, envy their apparently affluent lifestyle. But as refugees continue to arrive from Chinese-occupied Tibet, opportunities for those still in India remain limited; the lure of the West is strong.

Still, plenty of Tibetans of all ages in Dharamsala (including “new arrivals”) felt that Western pop and rock “have no place in a community engaged in an intense battle for cultural survival”.

On the one hand, there are very strong, politically informed reactions against any Tibetan music that sounds too Chinese, too Hindi, or too Western. On the other, many Tibetan youth respect traditional Tibetan music but find it boring.

In Chapter 5, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down: making modern Tibetan music”, Diehl ponders the challenges of creating a modern Tibetan music. She provides a history of the genre from its origins around 1970, introducing the TIPA-affiliated Ah-Ka-Ma Band before focusing on the Yak Band.

Paljor was brought up in Darjeeling, trained by Irish Christian missionaries. His late father was a Khampa chieftain who had been trained by the CIA in the late 1950s to fight Chinese incursion. Thubten, grandson of a ngagpa shaman, had escaped as a small child from Shigatse to Kalimpong in 1957, going on to spend seventeen years in the Tibetan regiment of the Indian army. Phuntsok was born in Dharamsala; Ngodup was an orphan schooled in Darjeeling.

In a community wary of innovation, even traditional musicians have a lowly status. Whatever people’s private tastes within the family, public musicking is subject to scrutiny.

Chapter 6 turns from sound to the crafting of song lyrics, with their narrowly solemn themes such as solidarity for independence, and nostalgia for the loss of a beautiful homeland—themes which demand expression in a language that is largely beyond the literary skills of the younger generation. Diehl talks with the official astrologer for the government–in-exile, who provided poetic lyrics for the local bands, and introduces the early work of Ngawang Jinpa, Paljor’s teacher in Darjeeling. Diehl cites a rather successful lyric by Jamyang Norbu (former director of TIPA, editor of the 1986 Zlos-gar, an important resource at the time; see e.g. The Lhasa ripper, Women in TIbet, 2, and The mandala of Sherlock Holmes), “poetic yet accessible, evocative rather than boring”.

She gives a theoretically nuanced account of what song lyrics communicate, and how; and she explains the refugees’ rather low level of literacy, official efforts to create a standard language among a variety of regional dialects, and the link with sacred sound. Love songs are also composed, but hardly performed in public. It is considered more acceptable to write lyrics in bad English than in bad Tibetan, but such songs are rarely aired in public.

Chapter 7 unpacks public concerts that “rupture and bond”. In January 1995, the Yak Band made a major trek to the Mundgod refugee settlement in south India to coincide with the Kalachakra initiation ceremony there, with the Dalai Lama presiding. Their choice of repertoire over fifteen nightly performances revealed “a comfort with cultural ambiguity and a passion for foreign culture that is disturbing to some in the community”.

Diehl 243

Over the course of the concerts the band agonised over their set list. While their inspiration was to share their songs of praise for the Dalai Lama, their longing for a homeland they had never seen, and compassion for their compatriots left behind in Tibet (exemplified in their opening song Rangzen), they varied the proportion of modern Tibetan songs, “English” rock songs, and Hindi and Nepali songs in response (and sometimes resistance) to the reactions of the multi-generational audiences—which included, at first, young monks, before their abbot imposed a strict curfew on them. While hurt that the audiences preferred “silly Indian love songs” to their core Tibetan offerings, the Yaks reluctantly succumbed to popular demand.

One of the Yaks’ reasons for their visit to Mundgod was to get their tenuous finances on their feet by selling their cassettes, but they returned to Dharamsala having made a loss. Moreover, they now suffered from hostile public opinion about their repertoire.

Diehl 259Disillusioned by the lack of support in Dharamsala, the band drifted apart, but they were able to put on a reunion gig for the Dalai Lama’s 60th birthday—when their preferred Tibetan set list was eminently suitable.

In the Conclusion, Diehl reminds us of the importance of musicking

as a crucial site where official and personal, old and new, representations of Tibetan culture meet and where different notions of “Tibetan-ness” are being confronted and imagined.

In a brief coda she updates the stories of the Yak Band.

* * *

For all the book’s excellent ethnographic vignettes, some sections bear the hallmarks of a PhD, with little adaptation to a more reader-friendly style—which is a shame, since the topic is so fascinating. I’ve already confessed my low tolerance threshold for heavily theorised writing (see e.g. my attempts to grapple with Catherine Bell’s outstanding work on ritual).

From within the goldfish bowl of Dharamsala, Diehl only touches in passing on the changing picture inside Chinese-occupied Tibet. While repression there has been ever more severe since 2008, research on regional cultures there had already become a major theme, with a particular focus on Amdo (see e.g. here, including the work of Charlene Makley, Gerald Roche, and others, as well as chapters in Conflicting memories). For the pop scene, useful sources are §10 of the important bibliography by Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (including work by Anna Morcom), and the High Peaks Pure Earth website (see also Sister drum, and Women in TIbetan expressive culture). Within occupied Tibet, performers of popular protest songs have been imprisoned, such as Tashi Dhondup; in another thoughtful article, Woeser explores the shifting sands of prohibited “reactionary songs” and the challenge of keeping track of subtle allusions.

Diehl refers to a variety of publications such as those of Marcia Calkowski and Frank Korom, and I cite some more recent sources in n.1 here—among which perhaps the most useful introduction to the topic is

  • Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile? Comparative observations on doing research among Tibetans in Lhasa and Dharamsala”, in Sarah Turner (ed.), Red stars and gold stamps: fieldwork dilemmas in upland socialist Asia (2013).

For contrasting lessons from occupation and exile, see also Eat the Buddha. Despite the presence of the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala has begun to occupy a less iconic position in our images of Tibetan culture. For all the growing disillusion with the political promises of Western countries, refugees continue to move on, while “new arrivals” have come to make up a significant component of the town’s Tibetan population—see e.g. Pauline MacDonald, Dharamsala days, Dharamsala nights: the unexpected world of the refugees from Tibet (2013), critically reviewed here. The growing popularity of satellite TV from the PRC, and the issue of Tibetan culture in the growing Western diaspora, further complicate the story.

Ethnographies, however definitive they may seem at the time, are always overtaken by more recent change. While soundscape is always an instructive lens on society, more general studies of Dharamsala lead us to a wealth of research on Tibetan refugees in south Asia by scholars such as Jessica Falcone, Trine Brox, Rebecca Frilund, and Shelly Boihl.

See also Lhasa: streets with memories. For the perils of “heritage”, see this roundup, and for a broad discussion of “authenticity”, note Playing with history.


* One of my own more disconcerting moments came while hanging out with young performers from TIPA on their tour of England in May 2004. Several of them were refugees from Chinese-occupied Tibet, but they were quite happy to speak Chinese with me. Much as I am attracted to Tibetan culture, apart from lacking the language skills, my whole background in Chinese culture has always made me wary of doing fieldwork in Tibetan areas. Whenever I meet Tibetans I am at pains to point out that my Chinese peasant mentors have also suffered grievously at the hands of the state, but I’m still anxious that they might consider me tarred with the brush of the invaders. Still, incongruously, several of the TIPA performers who had fled the PRC were now keen that I should sing them some Chinese pop songs to remind them of their old home, and were somewhat disappointed when I couldn’t oblige.

Godard and the Nouvelle Vague

with a further note on Last tango in Paris

Godard Karina

In 1970s’ England, while my musical tastes were already imbued with Ravel, Messiaen, and Boulez [Weirdo—Ed.], continental cinema offered an exotic escape from the drab insularity of our lives. French and Italian movies made a particularly important education for us.

The films of Jean-Luc Godard, who died last week (obits e.g. here and here), were iconic. It’s of no great consequence that his ouevre never quite appealed to me, but I’m just trying to work out why. It’s not that I balk at abstraction—I love Rivette’s Céline and Julie go boating, for instance (although you may say that its surreal fantasy is underpinned by the plot of a conventional mystery thriller).

Godard’s images and framing are strikingly original:

But for all the visual attraction of such posing, I suppose I was wary of poseurs. In Bertolucci’s Last tango in Paris (whose main theme is not sex but pain; see under The conformist) the character of Tom is a parody—perhaps more of Truffaut than of Godard, but anyway a satire on the whole pretentiousness of the Nouvelle Vague. To cite this review,

Léaud plays a devoted cineaste much like his New Wave directors, a man obsessed with getting everything on film, capturing something authentic through the most artificial means possible. He’s a punchline, with a camera crew following him everywhere, concocting scenarios that are intended to examine race relations and his girlfriend’s past as the daughter of a French colonialist officer, but it’s all phony, a game. He screams at his camera crew for halting filming in a sudden rainstorm—it’s so romantic and photogenic—and then he runs off into the rain, screaming his love’s name, still acting out the big romantic moment even though the cameras have stopped rolling. In another scene, the background music seems to be non-diegetic until Tom abruptly switches off the tape recorder hanging around his neck, which had apparently been playing the music as an accompaniment to a confrontation with Jeanne. This is a guy who carries around his own soundtrack.

Tom is a walking, talking critique of the contrivances and artificiality of filmmaking, and I think also a critique, if perhaps an unwitting one, of Brando’s self-conscious performance style. Tom is obsessed with authenticity, trying to rearrange reality to fit within his frame. He’s always walking around with his hands held up to form a frame around what he sees, an obvious caricature of a pretentious film director, and all his attempts to capture the essence of reality only come out artificial and silly. Though superficially quite different from Paul—who claims to want to avoid the truth, not discover it—Tom winds up being very much like his counterpart, another character who’s hiding from reality, even while claiming to seek it. In his case, he hides in the cinema…

Similarly, this article comments:

Tom, of course, is a parody of the Godardian New Wave filmmaker, running around putting up his fingers to make camera shots out of everything, and apparently not knowing or caring what Jeanne is doing. He is fittingly played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, who was discovered by Truffaut as a child and has since played in many New Wave movies, looking increasingly like Truffaut himself. Tom is characteristically in the New Wave ethos in trying to make a film about the progress of his love affair leading up to his marriage. His crew creep around after Jeanne, filming her meetings with Tom and then filming her childhood mansion complete with relics from the past. Real life and the world of their film become so entangled that it is hard to say anymore what their reality is. Jeanne’s life becomes the film; the film becomes their reality together; they live the film rather than making a film imitating their lives.

Bertolucci shows clearly the superficiality, irresponsibility, and triviality of Jeanne and Tom’s world together. It is a shrewd comment on contemporary, fashionably “hip” worlds where people are so sophisticated and blasé about everything that they have ceased to be human beings living in the realities of our society and historical moment. It is an entirely escapist world with all the inevitable consequences of shallowness that follow escapism.

The Nouvelle Vague was based on an aloof, impersonal ethos—for which I blame the alienated male auteurs, who were in charge, with women making decorative pawns. Call Me Old-Fashioned, but I still want a bit of plot, personality, communication. In many (perhaps all?!) films, such as La strada or The conformist, it’s the women who provide humanity while the men are swanning around being pompous and fucked-up. The women may be fucked-up too, but largely through being abused by all the fucked-up men. Revealingly, Godard showed his contempt for The conformist—as Bertolucci commented, recalling their meeting 37 years after the event:

He doesn’t say anything to me. He just gives me a note and then he leaves. I take the note and there was a Chairman Mao portrait on it and with Jean-Luc’s writing that we know from the handwriting on his films. The note says: “You have to fight against individualism and capitalism.” That was his reaction to my movie. I was so enraged that I crumpled it up and threw it under my feet. I’m so sorry I did that because I would love to have it now, to keep it as a relic. […]

Here are some trailers for Godard’s early films:

  • À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg:

  • Disprezzo coverLe mépris (Contempt, 1963), with Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli, is so overladen by Godard’s already signature style that it hardly seeks to do justice to the “humiliation and sexual frustration” of Alberto Moravia’s novel Il disprezzo (English translation titled A ghost at noon):

Of Godard’s successive muses, Anna Karina (wiki; obituary) was the most captivating. Their first movie together was Le petit soldat (filmed in 1960, released in 1963), followed by

  • Une femme est une femme (A woman is a woman, 1961):

  • Vivre sa vie (My life to live, 1962):

as well as Bande à part (1964), and Alphaville (1965). Their last film before they broke up was

  • Pierrot le fou (1965):

—which reminds me rather of Betty blue (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986) (in the words of Peep show, “great sex-and-suicide flick—turned a whole generation of men onto girls with mental illness”).

Godard’s originality emerged not only through his visual sense, but in musicMichel Legrand, known for working on less avant-garde movies, provided the soundtrack for Vivre sa vie:

Legrand also composed the soundtrack for Bande à part—this dance scene is actually endearing:

It’s as if all a male film director had to do was find a gamine muse (see under Moon river, and Ute Lemper), and success was guaranteed, no matter how minimal and inscrutable the plot-line.

I don’t mean to react merely with a surly Gallic shrug—each of Godard’s films was a tour de force (“too, er, deaf ‘orse”: Cheval trop sourd, unreleased?), and I quite see how epoch-making they were. Perhaps I should say not that his ouevre never appealed to me, but that it didn’t move me. But I guess that’s just the kind of bourgeois conceit that he was exposing; as Bertolucci continued in his recollection,

I had finished the period in which to be able to communicate would be considered a mortal sin. He had not.

Still, Godard’s stance against communication seems to dilute his radical political mission.

To end with an affectionate British parody, here’s a 1997 vignette from the Fast show:

An Irish music medley

Irish session 2

Adding to my handy roundup of roundups, as the Irish tag has become unwieldy, here’s a selection of my dabblings in Irish music, which feature some exhilarating tracks that will brighten your days.

lnfCiaran Carson’s exquisite Last night’s fun has inspired several posts, including

And this charming recollection, told to me at a session in an Armagh pub, has a Carsonesque lilt to it.

i got further into the swing with

To whet your appetite, here’s an irresistible playlist:

See also under Indian and world fiddles. And while I’m here, may I remind you of the great Flann O’Brian (more under Myles tag), and various fine Irish jokes such as these.

A roundup of roundups!

Apart from my annual surveys (2021 here), I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for roundups, where I group together posts on a particular theme. Whether or not you share my fetish for taxonomy (see e.g. here) and the joys of Indexing, as long as you start clicking away on the links (and the links within them…) then this could be a really useful navigational aid!

I could have sworn I published this roundup of such roundups before, but it seems to have disappeared. Note especially

China:

and surveys of my series on

I essayed an inventory of Chinese jokes under

Further global surveys:

Some other themes:

Western Art Music:

—a theme that also makes appearances under World musicking and ethnography:

Popular culture:

Drôlerie:

Ogonek and Til

For Nick

Allow me to introduce Ogonek and Til, feisty yet (you guessed it) flawed protagonists of my forthcoming crime drama series, as they embark on the hazardous trail of a dastardly ring of international diacritic smugglers…

ogonek

As an avid tennis fan, without being too perfectionist I’m not alone in musing gingerly over how to pronounce the surname of the magnificent Iga Świątek, currently sailing serenely (Serena-ly?) towards the final of the US Open. She gives us a handy lesson:

So the lowly diacritic squiggle indicates that the a sound is both closed and nasal. It’s an ogonek (“little tail”)—which leads us to the mystical realms of Elfdalian, Kashubian, Lithuanian, and Navajo (see here, and here)! To think that I still rather resent having to go to all the faff of inputting grave and acute accents in French, and such non-national fripperies…

Readers with a penchant for Igor Stravinsky anagrams will note that while the cast of the brilliant Gran visits York includes such redoubtable characters as Sir K.Y. Groins-Vat and Kirsty Garvison, one absentee from the urtext is the arcane exhortation

V.S.—or try sink, Iga!

It belongs with those weird dreams common to musos and sportspeople (“unqualified, ill-prepared, running out of time, wrong uniform, lost”). On the eve of yet another crucial Grand Slam match, the Polish star finds herself on stage (quite likely in her tennis outfit) playing percussion in the The Rite of Spring, only to see a prophetic instruction from the composer (revealing a rare aptitude for self-parody): either whip the page over, or just create a noisy diversion with all the pots and pans that surround you!

* * *

ao

Which reminds me, in Portuguese (cf. my paltry dabblings here), I do feel we Brits might make a little more effort in adding a nasal quality at the end of the ão sound in São Paulo (the diacritic on ã being a til, for which English has adopted the Spanish word tilde)—as in

  • não (no)
  • mão (hand)
  • pão (bread)
  • cão (dog)
  • limão (lime, for that caipirinha party)
  • canção (song)
  • Japão (Japan)
  • João (“John”).

Plenty of material there for a couple of niche limericks, to join Myles’s tribute to Ezra £; Alan Watts on Salisbury/Sarum; The young man from Calcutta; The young man from Japan, and The old man from Peru [typical bias against the middle-aged woman—Ed.]. Something like this, perhaps:

There was a young man from Japão
Who fed his cão pão with limão
Waving a mão, he burst into canção
Until João came up and said “Não“.

Estêvão, Çisiq 2022.

Note (cf. Mots d’heures: gousses, rames):
The scene is a dingy immigrant enclave in Coimbra. Despite his eccentric choice of dog-food, the enterprising oriental subject of this ditty seems to have been sufficiently au fait with Iberian folk idioms to experiment in combining the Noh-tinged (Não-tinged?) saudade of fado with the palmas of flamenco; perhaps it was the casual co-option of such percussive accompaniment that so offended the purist killjoy João.

Noh drum
Source.

Recently another interpretation of “Waving a mão, he burst into canção” has been proposed (Acta Musicologica Asiatica-Iberica, LXXIII.2, 2021), which would bypass both fado and flamenco: it may rather depict the haunting kakegoe cries of the Noh drummer as he slowly lifts his hand to bring it down resoundingly on the tense skin of the ōtsuzumi. Although “raising” might have been a more precise verb than “waving”, the burghers of Coimbra might well be alarmed to hear such an alien sound echoing through the cobbled alleys of their hallowed university town.

* * *

Composing a limerick for Iga is more of a challenge:

There was a young star named Świątek
Whose talents spread way beyąd tech
When it comes to the tennis, she sure is a menace—
To play her it’s all hands ą deck.

Sure, the stress-patterning doesn’t quite work: in line 2, it would be helped by an accent on beyond, though that requires knowledge of some spurious back-story whereby Iga has already been spotted as a promising software programmer; and there’s nothing to be done about the final line. But hey… I am proud to announce that my effort was runner-up in the prestigious 2022 Świątek Limerick Contest—in which I was the only entrant… But go on, why not join in too? Hours of harmless fun for all the family!

Iga
“YAYY!!! I’ve got a limerick!!!”

And now I’m already honing my entry for next year’s contest:

To Iga’s fine surname Świątek
I once tried adding a “zee”, ą spec
But that wouldn’t work—I felt such a berk
And now her name’s in neą—Heck!

Again, this falls down on stress-patterning. In line 2 (please excuse my unusual lapse into American English), my misguided spelling was of course Śzwiątek.

* * *

Click here for Nicolas Robertson’s outstanding Oulipean anagram series. See also Language learning: a roundup. For more practice with Polish names, and some amazing music, see Folk traditions of Poland; Polish jazz, then and now; and Polish migrants to the USA are among the cast of Annie Proulx’s splendid ethnomusicological novel Accordion crimes. For the Portuguese footballer Jesus, click here. For more ą, sorry I mean on, both football and tennis, see under A sporting medley—including this tribute to the multicultural musical heritage of Emma and Leylah. See also Oh Noh!, featuring Brian and Stewie; and for the clichés of blurb-writing, click here.

Everyday life in a Syrian village

 

Syrian village 1

I’ve been watching

  • Everyday life in a Syrian village (Omar Amiralay, 1974, with Saadallah Wannus),

“the first documentary to present an unabashed critique of the impact of the Syrian government’s agricultural and land reforms” (source), in the wake of the Ba’ath party coup of 8th March 1963.

Omar Amiralay (1944–2011) studied in Paris from 1966 before returning to Syria in 1970 (see also this interview). Following his short and uncritical Film essay on the Euphrates dam (1970), Everyday life in a Syrian village is set in al-Muwaylih, a “stronghold of tribal power” near the city of Deir ez-Zor in east Syria.

Syrian village 3The film revolves around the harsh life of peasants working the land. Interviews with villagers, teachers, health workers, officials, and policemen, lamenting the peasants’ “lack of awareness”, reveal the problems of introducing modern education and healthcare to the poor countryside—issues that remind me of rural China (see e.g. Guo Yuhua). Indeed, the brief IMDb summary proclaims that Muwaylih is “a place plagued with tribalism, ignorance, and evil”.

The filming is brilliant, with haunting images. On the soundtrack, besides the howling wind, traditional flute music is used to accompany scenes of manual labour, contrasting with the noises of basic mechanisation.

From 47.18, the villagers gather for ritual chanting with frame-drums—in his 1973 film about Kurdish dervishes on the Iran–Iraq border, André Singer suggests that one role of such rituals is to inculcate subservience to the sheikh’s feudal power. From 51.40, in a startling juxtaposition favoured by film-makers (again underlined by the soundtrack), the bemused villagers are assembled by the visiting town Cultural Unit to gawp at an utterly alien documentary on the blessings of progress.

By contrast, Everyday life in a Syrian village remains banned in Syria—here it is:

Amiralay’s third film The chickens (1978), also beautifully filmed (watch here), is a critique of the declining livelihoods of farmers and artisans in the Orthodox village of Sadad to the west—and is also banned in Syria. Having played a leading role in the Damascus Spring of 2000, he revisited the Euphrates region in 2003 to make A flood in Ba’ath country (working title Fifteen reasons why I hate the Ba’ath Party).

Besides R. Shaleah Taleghani’s chapter “Docu-ironies and visions of dissent in the films of Omar Amiralay” in a collection that she edited with Alexa Firat, Generations of dissent: intellectuals, cultural production, and the state in the Middle East and North Africa (2020), all this makes me keen to read studies such as Sulyman Khalaf, Social change in Syria: family, village, and political party (PhD, 1981, published 2021; foreword), and the work of scholars who pay tribute to the book here.

Further up the Euphrates to the northwest lies Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017; for tribal manoeuvring in Deir ez-Zor since 2011 under Assad and IS regimes, see this report. The recent devastation of Aleppo is shown in the outstanding documentary For Sama. See also the early Turkish feature films Law of the border and Dry summer.

With thanks as always to Kadir.

Hidden heritage

Hidden Heritage cover

  • Fatima Manji, Hidden heritage: rediscovering Britain’s relationship with the Orient (2021).

This engaging book is part of an important discussion that is deeply unwelcome in conservative circles. It’s in the same vein as the recent challenges (from both historians and ordinary people) to the representation of the legacy of the British empire—BLM, the attacks on statues (Rhodes in Oxford, Colston in Bristol)—in tandem with similar protests in the USA and elsewhere. [1] Sadly, the PC-gone-mad brigade and opponents of “woke” (a term that may be defined as “an awareness of injustice and the determination to do something about it”—see e.g. here and here) will either attack or ignore such work.

Fatima Manji, a worthy member of the brilliant team at Channel 4 News, attracted the fatuous ire of Kelvin MacKenzie in 2016 when she presented the bulletin featuring the terror attacks in Nice. You can read her reaction to the ruling here. She has recently filmed a fine report on honour killings in Pakistan.

In Hidden heritage, to complement her historical and political insights (besides her refined aesthetic sensibilities), Ms Manji turns out to have a real narrative gift. In the Introduction she notes the rhythm of visiting a stately home:

Walk through the hallways to see portraits of a lionised landed family with their porcelain skins and a compulsory display of European art, collected by a son on the Grand Tour. Admire the architecture, allow yourself to be amused by the story of a rogue uncle or a scorned lover, and end your trip with tea and a scone. If you are interested in interior design, there is inspiration enough in the coving and sconces, the gardens often prove delightful, and lovers of art will find enough to impress them. But beyond the twee trappings, Britain’s heritage sites are home to a hidden history.

It did not seem malicious or deliberate that it was hard to find more information about the occasional “swirl of Arabic, Persian, or Urdu letters, or the brown hue of a sitter’s skin in a portrait” that appeared amongst all the imperial opulence.

Some of the objects described in this book are only ever presented as the rewards of brave colonial conquest, and others are ignored altogether.

Britain’s apparent historical amnesia has lessons for our current debates about immigration and the nature of “Britishness”. Deliberately using the historical term “the Orient” for West and South Asia (notably the Ottoman empire and British India), she observes:

A whitewashed presentation of history directly affects how Britons today perceive the people, buildings, and languages of the Orient. All are regarded as alien threats and new arrivals to be defended against.

Manji colour 1

Chapter 1 opens in Chiswick House, probing the story behind the portrait of Muhammed bin Haddu al-Attar, ambassador of Morocco, who visited London in 1682 on a diplomatic and trade mission to the court of Charles II. His travels are described in fascinating detail. The ambassador was much admired. He dined with the scholar Elias Ashmole, observed the building of the new St Paul’s Cathedral, and attended performances of Shakespeare. He visited Cambridge, and at Oxford he met Edward Pococke, first chair of Arabic Studies there, as well as the linguist Edward Hyde. Manji follows the Ambassador back to Morocco, where he encountered political difficulties.

The era

is more nuanced than popular history would have us believe. The enthusiasm expressed by people in England, rich and poor alike, to see the Ambassador in person, even when diplomatic relations between the two polities may have been fraught, demonstrates that many showed the maturity of inquiring minds, and not the small island mentality that we may attribute to them retrospectively.

Just as absorbingly, Manji then traces the story back to Elizabethan England. The Queen sought alliances with the Ottomans, the Mughals, the Safavids, and the Moroccans. Among her companions was the Central Asian slave girl Aura Sultana, perhaps the first Muslim woman documented in England. The Shirley brothers courted the Safavids; Robert’s wife was Circassian. The East India Company and Levant Company were founded. Elizabeth established links with the Ottoman Sultan Murad III, and corresponded with his consort Sultana Safiye; the delivery (and repair) of a 16-foot-high clockwork organ for their son Mehmed (who became Sultan in 1595) turned out to be a serious challenge. Elizabeth also received at least three ambassadors from Morocco—the London visit of Abul Wahid bin Messoud in 1600 caused as much curiosity as that of Muhammad bin Haddu some eighty years later.

Manji 41

Such influences were evident in English food, dress, and expressive culture, with Oriental carpets and the beginnings of the craze for coffee (“the Mahometan berry”) in 1652, soon criticised. “The Turk” or “The Moor” became a common character in ballads and theatre.

Manji ends the chapter by considering the persistence of such tropes and fears in Britain today. But as she reminds us, an alternative history of the Tudor and Stuart period exists:

Too often our depictions of this era are inward-looking and forgetful of interactions with the world beyond Britain’s shores or Europe’s borders. They are not merely fascinating stories, but a tradition to draw on.

The book is well worth reading for this chapter alone; but the quality is maintained throughout. Chapter 2 takes us to Kew Gardens and the story of its “lost mosque”—the first built on British soil.

Kew
The Alhambra arch, the Chinese pagoda, and the Turkish mosque, 1763.
Source.

The Chinese pagoda originally had two companions, a Turkish mosque and an Alhambra arch. Much of the design for Kew Gardens, including the plan for an Alhambra building, was brought to fruition by Augusta, mother of George III. The mosque, completed in 1761, was designed by Sir William Chambers. Though not used for worship, it suggests respect for Islam.

It is as if the patron or the designer wished to send out a message about the place of these buildings in Britain, and, through them, the place of Britain in the world: that these ornate Oriental buildings are not alien to this landscape but, rather, that they belong.

While such a message soon met with both praise and detraction, Augusta certainly appears more open and cosmopolitan than our very own Minister for the 18th century. Visiting Kensington Palace, Manji tells the story of Muhammad and Mustafa, taken as prisoners after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, ending up in the retinue of George I (then Prince Elector of Hanover). Muhammad’s close relationship with the King was a source of resentment at court. But both died nearly four decades before the building of the mosque, and indeed they had converted to Christianity, so their influence on the Kew project is tenuous. So Manji finds a clearer proponent of the style in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was closely connected to the Dowager Princess Augusta. She had become immersed in Ottoman culture (including mosque architecture) while living in Constantinople from 1716, and went on to become the first to introduce inoculation against smallpox to Britain.

Oriental structures like the mosque at Kew seemed to denote not only expanding imperial ambitions but also an enquiring world-view. However, the mosque soon fell into disrepair, and by 1785 it had been dismantled.

Again, Manji pursues the story into the 20th century, with the Japanese Gate built in 1910 on the site of the mosque. And she reflects on the modern profusion of mosques in Britain—“no mere ornaments, being active spaces for collective worship, socialisation, and charitable activities”. She describes the struggle of the Lincoln Muslims to construct a mosque there since 2008 in the face of Islamophobic threats, and ongoing anti-Muslim violence.

There is something to be learned from that first mosque-like structure in Britain. It denies those flaunting flags while spewing hatred a monopoly on history and demonstrates that mosques are neither new nor alien in Britain.

More recently, the director of Kew Gardens has had to rebuff accusations of succumbing to wokeness.

Chapter 3 tells the story of Tipu Sultan, ruler of the kingdom of Mysore in the late 18th century, through artefacts now housed in Apsley House, Belmont House, and Powis Castle. A thorn in the side of the British, they vilified him while portraying the East India Company as benevolent.

Manji tells the story of the Wellesley brothers (the younger of whom became the Duke of Wellington) and “Clive of India”, whose daughter-in-law Henrietta did at least make a genuine effort to engage with the culture of the subcontinent.

The mass looting of Mysore after Tipu’s defeat resulted in many acquisitions for British stately homes and museums. Part of the haul from Tipu’s palace was the famous toy tiger which has lived at the V&A since 1897. Its scary mechanical sounds were only muted after World War Two.

In the early 1990s Channel 4 screened the Indian historical drama The sword of Tipu Sultan, in which the Sultan is the hero and the British the villains. This was during the enterprising period of commissioner Farukh Dhondy, when black and Asian tastes were being catered to. Later he reflected that such programming would now be seen as too radical for the channel, with diversity having become a “game of statistics”. Manji too takes a dim view of the images of “the Orient” now being presented by the media.

The treasures of Tipu’s rule found around our country remind us that the power Britain amassed as an empire was wrested from others who also have proud stories to tell. Like Tipu Sultan’s belongings, many children and grandchildren of Empire find themselves scattered around Britain. Perhaps it is time we deployed the tiger’s roar—to demand better depictions and more honest histories, and to shape our own narratives.

In Chapter 4, “Portraits of the forgotten”, she travels to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, summer retreat of Queen Victoria, now run by English Heritage. An entire corridor there is filled with portrait paintings of Indians of various classes. They show prison inmates from Agra, who had been chosen to stay for six months at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in 1886 to demonstrate the artisan crafts (weaving, carving, engraving, dyeing) that they had learned while in prison. They were housed in a specially-built “native compound” nearby, and escorted by Dr Tyler, superintendent of Agra prison. This was a propaganda exercise, illustrating an idealised picture of India as traditional and primitive in contrast to modern, industrialised Britain.

At the Albert Hall, Victoria’s entourage was greeted by a choir singing the national anthem in English followed by a verse in Sanskrit. Tennyson’s poem for the occasion seems worthy of E.J. Thribb: *

… be welded each and all
Into one imperial whole,
One with Britain, heart and soul!
One life, one flag, one fleet, one throne!
Britons, hold your own!

Manji comments on the fashion for grand exhibitions around Europe at the time. She notes the Jaipur Gateway from the Kensington exhibition, now on show at Hove Museum (“standing in a small front garden, facing a dentist’s surgery and a concrete block of 1960s-style flats”), and is impressed by the Durbar Hall and wooden screens on display at the Hastings Museum. She visits Glasgow to view the remains of a similar exhibition in 1888.

Victoria had a genuine taste for the Orient. She ordered the portraits of the craftspeople from the young Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda, and even commissioned him to travel around India to paint further portraits. She was so impressed by Abdul Karim, a former clerk at Agra prison, that he became her close confidant. He gave her lessons in the “Hindustani” language and the Urdu writing system. Again, courtiers viewed their relationship with suspicion.

Manji 146
We learn of Ram Singh, whose gifts were cultivated by the artist and curator John Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard), an advocate of India’s traditional arts. Victoria commissioned Singh to design and construct an Indian room for Osborne House, “a noble chamber of rare beauty and elegance”.

The depth of Britain’s relationship with the Orient is on display, carved into the walls surrounding us, a reminder of how this history is woven into the very fabric of Britain itself.

Yet, that fabric has been embroidered with the misery of millions, then and now. Those who seek to indulge the twin myths of the British Empire—its virtue and its emergence out of an innate British superiority—are often the most resistant to understanding what empire is in material terms. […]

Of course, the idea that Britain’s transport infrastructure, grandest architecture, art, and wealth could only be built on the massacre and subjugation of millions of people around the world must be maintained by a constant stream of propaganda directed at Britons.

As historians concur, it is here that our heritage sites have a particular responsibility. When they

fail to adequately explain the political contexts in which estates or objects come into the possession of landed families, traders, or imperial officers, they simply serve as vessels to perpetuate the twin myths of the Empire.

Reflecting on Victoria’s distress at her courtiers’ treatment of Abdul Karim, she ends the chapter on a topical note:

It is significant that even Victoria’s mild and purely personal interventions in her court on questions of race would be still be regarded in contemporary Britain as inappropriately “radical” by sections of the commentariat keen to stake out a position as more conservative than parts of the monarchy itself.

As to Abdul Karim,

could he ascend to a position of seniority and influence today? To an extent, his racial identity would be less of a problem. A political, economic, and cultural system that outwardly eschews its reliance on racial hierarchies depends to some extent on well-placed people of colour to provide legitimacy, validation, and a model of how non-threatening minorities ought to behave.

But the proliferation of a vast industry since 2001 aiming to demonise Muslims

means that a contemporary Abdul Karim would be at risk of finding himself on a no-fly list long before his arrival to the UK and, even with well-placed patronage, would be identified as a source of potential “radicalisation” and surveilled. However, if he were willing to serve as a loyal handmaiden to stale, preordained ideas of Britishness that are largely ahistorical, he would be enthusiastically embraced and rise quickly through the ranks, serving as corporeal proof of the supremacy and openness of a society that is in fact deeply insecure about its history and its prevailing ideology.

Chapter 5 begins at the court of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Westminster, which hosted its first event in 1867 for the visit of another Ottoman Sultan. Manji gives a vivid account of the pageantry surrounding the Sultan’s tour of England, and explains the diplomatic agendas of the day.

Manji 176

By 1903 the chamber, now named Durbar Court, hosted the rulers of the Indian princely states under the new British King Edward VII, in whose coronation India played a prominent role. On a trip to Liverpool the Indian soldiers were keen to pay homage to the solicitor Abdullah William Quilliam, founder of the city’s Muslim Association. The Maharajah of Jaipur paid a visit to Lord Curzon’s ancestral home of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, now run by the National Trust and housing a wealth of Asian objets d’art.

Manji ends this chapter by lamenting Britain’s current loss of interest in learning the languages of the Orient. SOAS, founded in 1917, is now offering specialist teaching in fewer languages. That English is the world’s lingua franca is an paltry excuse.

If more of us were multilingual, it would become increasingly ridiculous to demonise those speaking in another tongue.

While the former interest in language learning was substantially related to “national interest”, the current apathy seems to imply that Britain is struggling to come to terms with its waning global importance. On the right,

the bunting-and-borders brand of nationalism leads to the particularly short-sighted assumption that jingoism […] will restore Britain’s pride and prominence.

And she finds that the left too has failed to provide a compelling rebuff.

We should resist attempts to turn Britain into an insular ideological state that demands loyalty to one particular set of beliefs. We can and should be a multilingual society that recognises its own cultural inheritance as complex.

In Chapter 6 Manji visits Brighton, where the “astonishing, surreal, and fantastical” Royal Pavilion (1823) is the most visible sign of Britain’s historical admiration for the Orient. She focuses on the Great War, when the palace was converted into a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers.

More than a million Indians fought for the British in the war, suffering grievously. As hospitals in south England began to overflow, Sir Walter Lawrence, commissioner for the wounded Indian troops, adapted the Brighton Pavilion to accommodate them. This brief introduction has some film footage:

The local population were excited to receive these “warriors from the East”. Many of the nursing staff were of Indian origin. As donations came in, a philosophy society even gave a lecture on “The welding of Western and Eastern thought”.

Manji gains clues to the patients’ own experiences from the letters they attempted to send to their friends and family, often censored but later preserved in the British Library. Despite the weather, many were most appreciative. There was music in the form of Indian records (I wonder what!), and, um, organ recitals. For those “sufficiently convalescent” there was a matinee on the pier to hear music from a Sufi order (again, more please!) and an adaptation of a poem from the Mahabharata.

Still, many were deeply traumatised. And they (as well as Indian student volunteers) were frustrated by restrictions on movement outside the hospital. With the authorities concerned to avoid scandal, local women, though keen to serve as nurses, were not allowed to do so.

Manji colour 2Manji again returns to an earlier story, that of Deen Mohammed (1759–1851), who led a most creative life. Born in Patna, he worked for the East India Company army. At the age of 26, helped by a patron, he moved to colonial Ireland, where, moving in “somewhat elite circles”, he married a Protestant woman. Twenty years later he moved with his family to London. He was the first Indian to publish a book in English; and he opened an Oriental coffee-house—which in 1810 became the first curry house in Britain, which even provided a delivery service! ** The restaurant was short-lived, so he now made his home in Brighton, where he set up a Turkish bath-house with his wife, popularising “shampoo”—actually a medicinal Indian vapour massage bath. The establishment became “the epitome of fashion in Brighton for nearly two decades”.

Manji 204
Manji colour 3

Back with the Indian patients in the Great War, they were also disturbed that on recovery they were repeatedly being sent back to the trenches. A personal request to George V to end the practice made by Mir Dast, who had received the Victoria Cross for bravery, seems to have gone unheeded. And they often felt like prisoners. After a compromise had been reached on allowing female nurses, in June 1915 they were again removed, amidst protest.

Manji 205

Manji investigates mortuary procedures—cremation for Hindus and Sikhs, burial for Muslims. By early 1916 Indian soldiers were largely deployed away from Europe, and the casualties were no longer sent to Britain, so the Brighton hospitals were closed.

But the politics over how they should be recognised—or indeed acknowledging that recognition was due at all—continued in Britain, and does to this day.

She visits memorials, maintained sporadically until a recent revival in remembrance, with the Muslim burial ground at Woking particularly well restored since 2013—“a place Britain can be proud of”.

The Indian gate at the Brighton Pavilion was not added until 1921, and only since 2010 has it had an attic room dedicated to the memory of the patients.

Despite the best efforts of historical institutions and campaigners, across Britain the memory of these men still feels forgotten. […] The story of the Indian men who fought for Britain and those who came to the country wounded are somehow still not seen as an integral part of Britain’s national memory of war.

This feeds into the “myths of Britain standing alone or of the war only being fought by Europeans”. But a “poppy hijab” designed by a young Muslim student almost became a test of patriotism;

sadly the clothing choices of Muslim women once again became tokens in a political and cultural battle. The conversation turned to extremism and integration, rather than true remembrance.

After this poignant closing chapter, in the Epilogue Fatima Manji reflects on the moral panics that have been manufactured through history. She cautions against regarding the embracing of Oriental culture in the past as merely an elite pursuit. And she reflects on the raging debate (over statues, museums, and so on) since she began researching the book:

The myth of British Empire as a civilising mission is a fairytale enthusiastically endorsed by many British adults who otherwise perceive themselves as unrelenting sceptics. This peculiar delusion is the result of a system of schooling, cultural production, and political discourse which reinforces the fantasy at the expense of a collective national reckoning…

At the moment, our heritage sites are not performing the task of reframing the national story and placing “Britain’s relationship with the cultures and peoples of the Orient in its proper context”. She cites promising initiatives from the National Trust.

Of course, it is important to ensure those people who would not ordinarily visit heritage sites do so—that is part of the purpose of this book too. But visitors or potential visitors to heritage sites who have their own Oriental heritage should not be seen as grateful guests who need to be taught the ways and myths of “native” Britons. By choice and by bondage, we made these islands too.

Historians have been working on such stories for some time within their academic niches, and the book has an extensive section of references grouped by chapter; well illustrated with both colour and black-and-white images, the thoughtful, accessible survey of Hidden heritage, argued with both grace and passion, is most valuable.

See also Heritage: a roundup, including posts on China and early music; and my collected posts on west and Central Asia.


* Even-handed in my poetry criticism, I have suggested a similar connection in the ouevre of the Tang poet Bai Juyi.

** This was even before Berlioz composed his March to the Scaffold, immortalised with Indian-menu lyrics by London orchestral musicians in the 1960s when it seemed like a novel concept. Little did we know…


[1] Further to Ottoman historian Caroline Finkel’s article on the British suppression of history, the recent links below (compiled with her help) suggest what a major issue this has already become—and this is a mere selection.
The National Trust:
https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/colionialism-and-historic-slavery-report.pdf
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/08/23/britains-idyllic-country-houses-reveal-a-darker-history
https://lbsatucl.wordpress.com/2021/02/17/culture-wars-in-country-houses-what-the-national-trust-controversy-tells-us-about-british-history-today/
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/oct/13/national-trust-warns-of-threat-from-ideological-campaign-waged-against-it
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/oct/13/national-anti-woke-campaign-slavery-churchill-culture-war
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/oct/16/cream-teas-at-dawn-inside-the-war-for-the-national-trust
English Heritage:
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/contested-history/
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/research/slavery/
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/oct/16/racist-attack-on-english-heritage-exhibition-celebrating-black-lives
Museums and galleries:
https://www.britishmuseum.org/about-us/british-museum-story/contested-objects-collection
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/jun/21/british-museum-head-in-sand-return-artefacts-colonial
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/nov/08/national-gallery-publishes-research-into-slave-trade-links
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/nov/28/tate-exhibition-to-explore-gallerys-links-to-caribbean-slave-trade
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/11/24/tate-britain-director-defends-museum-against-accusations-of-cancelling-hogarth
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/jun/29/should-museums-return-their-colonial-artefacts
Legacies of British Slavery:
https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/
The Church of England:
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/09/remove-or-alter-your-slavery-monuments-churches-are-told
and the Rijksmuseum:
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/07/09/the-big-review-slavery-at-the-rijksmuseum
More on anti-woke:
https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/charities-woke-agenda-nadine-dorries-1232415
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/feb/20/attack-on-woke-charities-has-backfired-campaigners-say
David Olusoga on statues, BLM, and so on:
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/jun/07/david-olusoga-race-reality-historian-black-britishness
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/07/arts/television/david-olusoga-black-history.html
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/dec/26/culture-warriors-sallied-forth-only-to-be-defeated-by-their-own-ineptitude
(and I haven’t attempted to cover Confederate statues in the USA).
Other:
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/apr/21/uk-inquiry-blames-pervasive-racism-for-unequal-commemoration-of-black-and-asian-troops
https://historyjournal.org.uk/2020/07/21/historians-call-for-a-review-of-home-office-citizenship-and-settlement-test/
Perhaps we can give the last word to Stewart Lee (again, cf. his riposte to Amanda Platell’s complaint about Bake Off):
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/aug/21/national-trust-members-get-ready-to-choke-on-your-carrot-cake

The body politic

Sanna

As you may imagine, I know even less about Finnish politics than some of the other topics that I write about. But after Prime Minister Sanna Marin‘s praiseworthy handling of Covid and the Ukraine crisis, the recent furore over her dancing at a private house party reminded me of Susan McClary’s critique of the denial of the body, the puritanical relegation of sensuous enjoyment, on which Western Art Music has long prided itself.

AOCRather than rejoicing in Sanna Marin’s humanity, some people have queried her “lapse of judgment”. Apparently what disturbs them is that she is seriously cool. Oh well, good to know that even in Scandinavia there are some puritanical fuckwits. It also reminds me strongly of the faux outrage over the video of the wise AOC dancing, to which she gave such a brilliant riposte.

But Sanna Marin also has a lot of support, and YAY!!!, Scandi women have retorted, posting their own videos of them dancing and drinking in solidarity.

With a very few other honourable exceptions, the spectacle of politicians dancing generally ends in tears. Just imagine how fortunate we would be to have such a PM in Britain, rather than the lying, self-serving, xenophobic bunch of crooks that currently holds us to ransom (see also my fantasy Jacob Tree-Frog Ribena scandal). Sure, being “entitled to relax” has been the default mode of our own “Prime Minister”, only in a bumbling, inept, and corrupt fashion (“roving briefs”, perhaps).

Surely it’s a blessed relief to know that politicians can still be Real Human Beings. FFS, Get a Life, Ye Olde Puritans.

Early Turkish verismo

Some depictions of rural life in Turkish cinema of the 1950s and 60s.

Law of the border poster

In my post on the Zaza Kurds I mentioned Yilmaz Güney. One of his first movies in a substantial ouevre was

which he wrote, also taking the leading role of Hidir. It’s set around a village near Urfa in the Kurdish region on the border of Turkey and Syria, “where lack of education, joblessness and general hopelessness have left the population little choice but to become outlaws in order to survive”.

The forces that push Hidir and his fellow villagers to smuggle and a telling of the plight of the poor and alienated group of people struggling to survive the only way they ever knew, from father to son.

Law of the border

It’s a constant contention between risk and reward —for the smugglers, the herders and the landowners—and the conjoined result is a provincial portrait of constricted desperation on all sides.

Amidst a violent patriarchal society, the film hints at the importance of education, as the teacher Ayşe (the film’s only female character) attempts to persuade Hidir to allow his son Yusuf to attend school.

Yet in the end reality crashes in while duty, survival, and emotions take over nobility, and people revert to what they know, be it teacher, commander, smuggler, or profiteer.

The only copy that survived the 1980 Turkish coup was rescued and restored in 2011 by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. It’s been described as “a Turkish Western”. Here it is:

* * *

  • Susuz yaz (Dry summer) (Metin Erksan, 1964; reviewed e.g. here) had already enjoyed huge international success, although it was banned in Turkey for fear of broadcasting negative images of society.

Dry summer poster

Showing power struggles over access to water in a poor village, as peasants resist the brutish agha Osman’s determination to deprive them of the “blood of the earth”. Jealous of his brother Hasan’s relationship with his young bride Bahar, Osman contrives to have him sent to prison for a crime that he himself committed, leaving him free to molest Bahar. In scenes of rare sexual voyeurism, the story exposes the subordination of women (for Erksan’s feminism, see here). It was filmed in Urla district of Izmir on the Aegean coast—and at a time when Turkish film used the standard language, most of the actors speak in Aegean accents. * The soundtrack effectively uses both traditional bağlama and remarkably avant-garde styles.

Watch here.

Dry summer

For a review of these two films, click here

* * *

Over a decade earlier, in 1952 Metin Erksan had made the biopic

about the renowned blind Alevi bard Aşik Veysel (see here; cf. Kurdish bards, and blind bards of Ukraine and China; see also here).

Asik film poster

Shot in Aşik Veysel’s native village in Sivas, again the film was censored for depicting the harshness of rural life.

Asik Veysel still

Sorry, no subtitles, and with some breaks in sound:

With the Turkish film scene already dominated by urbane commercialism, such films controversially depicted rural deprivation and conflict. Cf. Omar Amiralay’s 1974 documentary Everyday life in a Syrian village.


Hulya* Dry Summer was the debut role of Hülya Koçyiğit (b.1947)—click here for her experience of making the film. I note with typical superfluity that she was brought up in Kuzguncuk—as she recalls in this interview for the Turkish Agricultural and Forestry Magazine, that indispensable cultural organ (cf. The Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers’ Guide).

The sceptical feminist

Sceptical cover

In between the second and third waves of feminism came a remarkable book:

Regrettably, it’s out of print, but you can—and must—read it here. I first read the book soon after it was first published, and it remains an inspiring analysis, addressing the topic with dispassionate philosophical clarity.

In the Introduction she explains:

This book is a battle on two fronts. On the one hand, it takes issue with the many people who think that there is no justification for the existence of the feminist movement: the ones who think that women’s demand for equality with men was misguided in the first place, or that they have now got it, or that women are better off than men. On the other hand, it is equally against a good deal of feminist dogma and practice. For all the strength of the fundamental feminist case, feminists often weaken it by missing the strongest arguments in its support, or allowing themselves to get entangled in non-essential issues, or insisting on making integral to the feminist cause ideas which are either irrelevant, probably false, or actually against the interests of feminists and often everybody else as well. If the arguments which are to be presented here succeed in their intention, feminism will emerge from the enquiry as necessarily radical, but with firmer foundations, less vulnerability to attack, and at the same time more general acceptability than it has at present.

Her basic definition of the issue is broad:

Women suffer from systematic social injustice because of their sex.

Although people do usually think of feminists as being committed to particular ideologies and activities, rather than a very general belief that society is unjust to women, what is also undoubtedly true is that feminism is regarded by nearly everyone as the movement which represents the interests of women.

She notes the “apparently ineradicable human tendency to take sides”:

While it would be ideal if everyone could just assess each controversial problem on its own merits as it arose, what actually happens is that people usually start by deciding whose side they are on, and from then onwards tend to see everything that is said or done in the light of that alliance. The effects of this on the struggle for sexual justice have been very serious. The conflation of the idea of feminism as a particular ideology with that of feminism as a concern with women’s problems means that people who do not like what they see of the ideology (perhaps because they are keen on family life, or can’t imagine a world without hierarchies, or just don’t like unfeminine women) may also tend to brush aside, explain away, sneer at, or simply ignore all suggestions that women are seriously badly treated. Resistance to the feminist movement easily turns into a resistance to seeing that women have any problems at all.

Since there is no doubt that feminism is commonly thought of as having a monopoly on the representation of women’s interests, therefore, and since all feminists, however firm their ideological commitments, must want as many people as possible to be willing to listen to their arguments about the position of women rather than reacting with hostility whenever the subject of feminism comes up, it is in the interests of everyone who cares about justice to have as many people as possible thinking of themselves as feminists. That is the main reason why the wider definition is needed.

There is also another reason. If feminists themselves think of feminism as the movement which defends women’s interests and also as being ideologically committed in a particular direction, the effect will be to fossilise current feminist views. Any feminist who has the idea that giving up her current views is equivalent to giving up feminism may be very unwilling to look at her views critically and abandon them if they are implausible. But however committed any feminist may be to her ideology, she must allow that there is a difference between maintaining the ideology and accepting more generally that women are unjustly treated, and since human fallibility means that she may turn out to be wrong about the first, it seems better that feminism should be thought of as the wider of the two.

Thus she defines feminism as a movement for the elimination of sex-based injustice—which also allows men to count as feminists.

Admittedly, men claiming to be feminists have to be viewed with a certain amount of caution, since many have already discovered (sometimes without realising it) that pretensions to feminism are new and valuable weapons in the cause of male supremacy. […]

Some men are quite as capable of useful logical thinking and scientific investigation as women.

So it’s neither a movement of women nor a movement for women.

It obviously cannot be one which supports the interests of women under all circumstances, because there must be many situations where, even now, women treat men unjustly, and a movement concerned with justice cannot automatically take the side of any woman against any man. However, more subtly, feminism should not even regard itself as a movement to support women who suffer from injustice. This is because many injustices suffered by individual women have nothing to do with their sex, and could equally well be suffered by men. If, for instance, there are men and women in slavery, it is not the business of feminists to start freeing the women. Feminism is not concerned with a group of people it wants to benefit, but with a type of injustice it wants to eliminate. The distinction is important, even though on the whole the elimination of that injustice will benefit more women than men. Once again, this consequence of the new definition does no harm: on the contrary, it is far more reasonable to ask people to support a movement against injustice than a movement for women.

She makes a case for the philosophical approach, beyond debates about practical matters:

Feminism often suffers from staying too close to women, and not looking enough at the general principles which have to be worked out and then applied to women’s problems.

So the broader topics of the early chapters (“The fruits of unreason”, “The proper place of nature”, “Enquiries for liberators”, “Sexual justice”, all cogently argued) set the scene for her discussion of practical issues of specific concern in society. Here I’ll give a few instances of the latter.

Progress has since been made in some circles on some of the issues discussed in Chapter 5, “The feminist and the feminine”.

The fear that an emancipated woman must necessarily be an unfeminine one has always been the basis of one of the opposition’s main objections to feminism.

Femininity and masculinity are obviously not the same as maleness and femaleness. […] We must therefore be concerned with attributes which are in some way supposed to accompany these fundamentally sexual ones, and the question is of what kind of accompaniment is at issue.

As she notes, these attributes are the subject of much anxiety. The “desirable” quality of “femininity” “is obviously thought a very fragile thing, since so much trouble is gone to on its behalf”. Feminists are not concerned about any inherent characteristics differentiating the sexes; rather, they ponder the fact that

men and women are under different social pressures, encouraged to do different kinds of work, behave differently, and develop different characteristics.

She ably refutes Ruskin’s “sugary gloss of ‘equal but different’ “, and analyses direct and indirect social pressures. But the problem of eradicating the evils of culturally imposed femininity needs to be approached with some circumspection; she is wary of direct attacks on all forms of “femininity”. Among her arguments is people’s general appreciation of cultural differences;

While feminists must be committed to attacking all cultural distinctions which actually degrade women, the indiscriminate pursuit of an androgynous culture must involve the elimination of innocuous cultural differences as well, and with them the sources of a great deal of pleasure to many people.

In Chapter 6, “Woman’s work”, she first addresses the issue of “whether the work is of a kind which ought to be highly valued, or whether it is possible for it to be highly valued”. Then she considers the age-old dichotomy of public (male) and private (female) activity, and their different statuses:

If women’s work is private it is necessarily without status, and any promise to give it higher status must be vacuous.

She cites Betty Friedan’s story of a successful female journalist interviewing a housewife in 1949, who “has done nothing of what she planned to do in her youth, she has wasted her education, and she feels a general failure”.

“Then the author of the paean, who somehow never is a housewife, … roars with laughter. The trouble with you, she scolds, is you don’t realise you are expert in a dozen careers, simultaneously. ‘You might write: Business manager, cook, nurse, chauffeur, dressmaker, interior decorator, accountant, caterer, teacher, private secretary… you are one of the most successful women I know.’ “

As Betty Friedan rightly implies, this sort of thing is the purest rubbish, so entirely beside the point that it is hard to know where to begin criticising it. Its technique consists in totally ignoring the real complaint, pretending it is something else, and arguing that that something else is quite unjustified.

JRR does indeed go on to criticise the “patronising rubbish” of the “paean” with both care and passion. Yet such flapdoodle still went on when The sceptical feminist was written; and while progress has been made, it can still be heard today.

It is no part of feminism to insist that a woman should work at other things even though her children suffer as a consequence, but it is part of feminism to insist that there is something radically wrong with a system which forces so many women to choose between caring properly for their children and using their abilities fully. […]

It is not in the least obvious how this is to be done, but that is a reason for devoting the full energy and imagination of everyone who has any of either to trying to find a way. […]

To hold up home and family as the highest vocation of all is to try to cheat women into doing less than they might, and wasting their abilities.

She always puts the counter-argument—and then refutes it. She continues by considering goodness and altruism;

Women above all people are the ones who must resist the idea that the greatest good a woman can do is get on quietly with her limited work, because it is so transparently the result of men’s subjugation of women. […]

As long as the people who excel in the most important work are without status, it means that society undervalues their work, and as long as that happens society has the wrong values. […]

… What this suggests is that when women are indeed allowed to excel, even if they do it in slightly different areas from men’s, there is at least the possibility that things which are associated with women may become as highly regarded as the ones associated with men.

Since it may well be true that women will tend of their own volition to do different things (though of course we do not yet know), it is essential that we should try to make that equal respect come about.

Parts of Chapter 7, “The unadorned feminist”, may again appear somewhat dated, but while courting controversy she makes some most stimulating points.

There is no doubt at all that many feminists regard the rejection of “woman garbage” as a substantial issue, a thing which feminism ought to be committed to, rather than just a gesture. […]

Many feminists regard women who persist in clinging to their traditional trappings as traitors to the cause, while on the other hand to many non-feminists this austerity in the movement is one of its most unattractive aspects.

She explores the issues, starting with the obvious causes for feminist concern. First,

the amount of time, effort, and money which women are by convention expected to devote to their appearance, when no comparable demands are made of men. […]

If women are to succeed in the important things of life, it must be possible for them to be more negligent about dress, if they want to, without sacrificing social presentability in the process.

Further, the standards to be reached are impossibly high; mass culture allows for insufficient room for diversity; and the demands of the fashion industry are constricting. Of course, progress in such issues has been ongoing, and new generations of feminists have continued to probe them.

People have, after all, to choose their clothes whatever they are, and a feminist whose main motivation was to put as little time and money into them as possible should presumably go around in the first and cheapest thing she could find in a jumble sale, even if it happened to be a shapeless turquoise Crimplene dress with a pink cardigan. No feminist would be seen dead in any such thing. […] Style is important.

(Now I’m no fashion guru, but I rather think the outfit she parodies there would today be considered rather chic; still, it’s a good point.)

This is even clearer in the case of the great majority of feminists who do go to some little trouble to be clean and neat and pleasant. They too tend to go for the unfeminine feminist uniform, but this has obviously nothing to do with effort. With just as little effort, if they wanted to, they could wear all the time a single comfortable, pretty, simple, easily-washed, drip-dry dress, so avoiding all the problems of fashion, variety, time, money, and effort without giving up being pretty and feminine at the same time. […]

She ponders the issue further:

It is supposed to be bad to want people as objects of pleasure, but it cannot possibly be bad to want them because they give pleasure; there is no other possible basis for love than what is in some way pleasing to the lover.

She disputes the romantic tradition that love should be a purely altruistic passion, and the testing game of “Would you still love me if I were (poor, ugly, crippled…)?”

We love people for qualities they have which are pleasing to us. […]

It is not intrinsically degrading for women to want men; it has been degrading only because in the past men have not had to bother much about how pleasing they were to women, while women have had to go all out to please men even to survive. In a position of equal dependence and independence between men and women it would not be in the least degrading for either to want, and try to please, the other.

Discussing sensual pleasure, she explores the notion of women as sex objects.

If the aim of the deliberately unadorned feminist is to make sure that men who have the wrong attitude to women have no interest in her, she is likely to succeed.

The best-judging man alive, confronted with two women identical in all matters of the soul but not equal in beauty, could hardly help choosing the beautiful one. Whatever anyone’s set of priorities, the pleasing in all respects must be preferable to the pleasing in only some, and this means that any feminist who makes herself unattractive must deter not only the men who would have valued her only for her less important aspects, but many of the others too.

She argues against the notion that “if you do not care at all about people’s beauty you are morally superior to someone who does”. Those holding such a view

must also think it is bad to care about beauty at all, since beauty is the same sort of thing whether it is in paintings, sunsets, or people, and someone who does not care about beauty in people is someone who simply does not care about beauty.

(I suspect this needs elaborating. People often have blind spots about particular areas of aesthetics: not all of those who admire sunsets appreciate painting, a film buff may not have a taste for interior design, and so on. I’m sure she can clarify my doubt here!)

Now of course beauty is often a low priority, and it is morally good to care relatively little about it when people are hungry, or unjustly treated, or unhappy in other ways. [….] It is not actually wicked to be aesthetically insensitive, but neither is it a virtue, any more than being tone deaf, or not feeling the cold, or having no interest in philosophy or football.

As to sex,

If sensual pleasing is a good thing, why not wear pretty clothes? Why not, in suitable circumstances, dress in ways that are deliberately sexy? […] To refuse to do that may show that you are not interested in men who are interested in sex, but that is a personal preference, and nothing to do with feminist ideals.

Although it may be morally good to give up sensual pleasure to achieve some other end, there is nothing to be said for giving it up unless there is some other end to achieve.

Discussing packaging and degradation, she takes issue with “natural beauty”.

The question of how much effort is worth putting into beauty has nothing to do with feminism. It tends to look like a feminist matter, of course, because it is generally accepted that women make themselves beautiful for men while men go to no such trouble for women, but the idea that this has anything to do with women’s not caring about beauty in men is a most extraordinary myth. They have not, of course, generally been able to demand it. […]

It is the asymmetry of power that is the feminist question.

Anyone who wants a puritanical movement should call it that, and not cause trouble for feminism by trying to suggest that the two are the same.

The chapter moves on to issues relating to sex work—and incidentally suggests a novel way of regarding pianists:

It is quite clear that we do not in general think that there is anything intrinsically wrong with being interested only in certain aspects of people, pleasing people by means of particular skills, entering competitions against other people of similar skill, or earning an income by the use of particular abilities. For instance, suppose a singer heard a splendid pianist at a concert; he might fantasise about giving concerts with her, with no thought about her which went beyond her musical ability. [She explains “they are implied to be of opposite sex only because of the analogy to be drawn with sexual relationships, and for no other reason.”] He might try to meet her, in the hope that she would be willing to enter into a limited musical relationship, and she might agree. She might also happily play the piano to please people who were not in the least interested in other aspects of her. She might enter competitions. And certainly she would try to earn her living by playing the piano for the entertainment of people who enjoyed listening to music. […]

Why should it be acceptable to be paid for charming people’s ears with beautiful sounds, but not for delighting men’s fancies with strip shows and prostitution?

It is said that these things degrade women, and at present they certainly do. However, there is quite enough degradation in the surrounding circumstances to account for women’s being degraded, without having to resort to the idea that there is something bad about unsanctioned or commercially motivated sex. Women are degraded by these things because of the public contempt they suffer, because of the fact that they have to take these activities up whether they want to or not when there is no other way to make a living, and worst of all because once they have sunk to this level they must suffer endless degradations which result from their weak position. […] However, other things, like teaching and manual work, have been made degrading by social attitudes, and in cases like that we have tried to remove the degradation rather than persuade people not to do the work. […]

Sex is said to be cheapened by money. Why should it be, however? Nursing care is a thing which is often given for love, but we don’t think nurses cheapen themselves or the profession when they earn their living by it; we think it is an excellent thing that these people should be able to use their skills all the time, and care for more than just their families and friends.

She struggles to adduce reasons why sex is inherently so different.

The real feminist problem is the unfairness of the present bargaining situation, and the fact that women are in a position to be exploited, and degraded in that way. That certainly has to be attacked with full feminist force.

At the heart of the problem is that “many men do not treat women properly”. And she considers the issue of women’s culture;

the fact that interests and cultures grew under conditions of confinement does not make them less the real culture of that group.

Doubtless women making themselves “deliberately unattractive” was an issue at the time. But she also broaches the important question, “why does everyone presume that the beautification of women is all for men?”, and indeed, later generations have worked this one out. I imagine some younger feminists would wish to further unpack her arguments here about the nature of beauty and attractiveness, and their basis in the male gaze.

Chapter 8, “Society and the fertile woman”, discusses the issues of whether contraception and abortion should be allowed, and whether they should be free. The lengthy section on abortion is all the more relevant today with the shameful reversal of Roe vs. Wade. Chapter 9, “Society and the mother”, explores arrangements for childcare, and whether the state or parents should pay for it.

Chapter 10, “The unpersuaded”, returns to the problem that, despite the strength of the feminist case, the movement was still broadly unpopular. Pondering remedies for this situation, she discusses three issues in turn: that there is no reasonable feminist case at all; that it is exaggerated; and that the image of the movement is unattractive. She responds cogently to a series of objections.

The greatest possible care must be taken not to make the uphill grind even worse than it need be, through the careless presentation of a feminist image and feminist policies which drive the movement’s natural supports back into the traditional camp. If a more careful formulation of radical feminist policies will lead not only to a better plan for the future, but also to a kind of radical feminism which is attractive and understandable to the people who are at present its opponents, then no feminists—least of all the ones who feel that reason has no place in political achievement—can afford to be careless in argument. The very impossibility of reaching most of the unpersuaded by the force of reason becomes the final demonstration of the indispensability of care in argument amongst feminists themselves.

* * *

The 1994 edition has two further Appendices clarifying and augmenting her arguments. And in her new Introduction she reflects on reactions to the book, and acknowledges that the book displays “period features”; but while many once-controversial campaigns had been won (and other issues were becoming prominent, such as LGBT rights and pornography), most of the questions she confronts remained apposite. In the public forum, she notes, a change of rhetoric need not always imply a change of substance.

Today, as feminists deplore “the return of sexism” (Natasha Walter, Living dolls), many arguments revolve around mundane issues for women such as merely staying alive, let alone retaining control over their own bodies or achieving equal pay.

But after all these years, with so many feminist authors building on the work of previous generations (in Britain, an outstanding instance is Laura Barton’s Everyday Sexism campaign; and cf. the succinct, accessible manifestos of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche), these issues remain highly apposite—not least the reluctance of some women (and indeed men) to identify as feminists.

Sadly, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ philosophical pursuits haven’t resulted in further publications on feminism—but her three lectures from 2017 on “Sex in a shifting landscape” start here. I’d also love to see her sinking her philosophical teeth into PC gone mad, and Brexit.

See also Gender: a roundup, including Words and women, Sexual politics, The handmaid’s tale, and for a suitable playlist, You don’t own me. For an introduction to gender and music, see under Flamenco 2: gender, politics, wine, deviance.

.

In search of the sacred in modern India

Nine lives

Moving on from the early travels of William Dalrymple, I’ve been re-reading his splendid seventh book,

  • Nine lives: in search of the sacred in modern India (2009)
    (reviewed e.g. by Colin Thubron, and here).

By now Dalrymple had long been based in India. In the Introduction (click here for a variant) he traces the book’s origins back to the summer of 1993, when on a trek in the Himalayas he met an ash-smeared, naked itinerant sadhu of about his own age—who turned out to be a dropout from the world of commerce.

Living in India over the last few years, I have seen the country change at a rate that was impossible to imagine when I first moved there in the late 80s.

So extraordinary was the pace of development that

It was easy to overlook the fragility and unevenness of the boom. […]

Within twenty minutes of leaving the headquarters of Microsoft or Google Asia, cars and trucks are beginning to give way to camel and bullock carts, suits, denim, and baseball hats to dusty cotton dhotis and turbans. This is a very different India indeed, and it is here, in the spaces suspended between modernity and tradition, that most of the stories in this book are set. […]

While the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India’s religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices, and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at speed.

So

I set out to write an Indian equivalent of my book on the monks and monasteries of the Middle East, From the holy mountain. But the people I met were so extraordinary, and their own stories and voices so strong, that in the end I decided to write Nine lives in a quite different form. Twenty years ago, when my first book, In Xanadu, was published at the height of the 80s, travel writing tended to highlight the narrator; his [sic] adventures were the subject, the people he [sic] met were sometimes reduced to objects in the background. With Nine lives I have tried to invert this, and keep the narrator firmly in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage.

Indeed, this has been a growing tendency in anthropology and ethnomusicology; see e.g. Helen Rees’s introduction to Lives in Chinese music (2009). This trend is reflected in my own work on Gaoluo, and the Li family Daoists.

Besides all the scholarly research on living Indian religious traditions in change, a popular book like this is most valuable. Many of these topics have been covered by other authors, and Dalrymple provides a succinct reading list by chapter. This might have taken the form of a rather more detailed annotated section (as Barbara Demick does in Eat the Buddha, for instance); he might even have included some audio-visual documentation, as I attempt selectively below.

So Nine lives focuses on ascetics and ritual specialists (the latter chiming with my own work on China). And as in China, women play a major role. Dalrymple’s work is no simple paean to the Wisdom of the Mystic East; despite all the evocative descriptions, he is concerned to reflect the ravages of modern change.

A great many of the lives of the searchers and renouncers I talked to were marked by suffering, exile, and frequently, great pain; a large number turned out to be escaping personal, familial, or political tragedies. […]

Nor (I note) does religion always provide an escape; often it compounds exploitation. Dalrymple again:

I have made a conscious effort to try [and] avoid imposing myself on the stories told by my nine characters, and so hope to have escaped many of the clichés about “Mystic India” that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion.

Amidst a widespread tendency towards standardisation, the stories highlight

the deeply embedded heterodox, syncretic, and pluralist religious and philosophical folk traditions which continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities.

As he notes,

The book makes no claims to be comprehensive, and there are many traditions which I have completely left out: there are, for example, no Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, or Jews in this book, though all have long histories in the soil of South Asia.

Nine lives map

The chapters follow a trusty formulaic sequence: some evocative scene-setting (often worthy of Stella Gibbons’ *** purple passages in Cold comfort farm); a vignette on his first meeting with the guru in question; some early history; “I will tell you my story”; and worries about the future.

* * *

The first chapter is The nun’s tale, in which Dalrymple meets the young Jain devotee Mataji on the pilgrimage to Sravanabegabola in Karnataka. Jainism, little known outside India (where it now has “only” four million followers), is rather more ancient than Buddhism, and more extreme in its asceticism.

Mataji had chosen the discipline gladly in her mid-teens. Despite the principle of non-attachment, she was still devastated by the loss of her constant companion, who completed the sallekhana fast to the death after contracting TB; and she herself has already embarked on the same path.

The dancer of Kannur introduces a theyyam troupe of ritual dancers and drummers in Kerala, with a typical opening Stella-esque*** paragraph:

In the midnight shadows of a forest clearing, bounded on one side by a small stream and a moonlit paddy field, and on the other by the darkness of a rubber plantation and a green canopy of coconut palms, lit only by a bonfire and a carpet of flickering camphor lights, a large crowd has gathered, silhouetted against the flames. Most have walked many miles through the darkness to get here. They are waiting and watching for the moment when, once a year, the gods come down to earth, and dance.

Dalrymple’s subject is Hari Das, a dance medium possessed by Lord Vishnu. For nine months of the year he works as a manual labourer building wells, and at weekends as a jail warder—other members of the troupe work as waiters, bus conductors, and so on. The theyyam season lasts from December to February; it now provides a much better living than labouring, and than it did in previous generations. While work in the prison is dangerous, performing theyyam is physically exhausting—dancers have a very low life expectancy—and mentally demanding.

Dalrymple notes that while Kerala appears idyllic, it has always been one of the most conservative, socially oppressive, and rigidly hierarchical societies in India. The theyyam, performed by Dalit outcastes, and free from Brahmin control, is “a conscious and ritualised inversion of the usual structures of Keralan life”.

After another typical transition (“We sat drinking chai on the veranda as the sun set, and he began to tell his story”), Hari Das describes how his father taught him the complex arts of thottam story-songs, mudra hand gestures, nadana steps, facial expressions, make-up, and headgear. He notes a certain recent increase in prestige for theyyam.

Here’s a YouTube playlist with 61 short clips:

Note also the research of Rolf Killius, also featured in my post on Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia.

The daughters of Yellamma tells the distressing story of the devadasi (for a version of this chapter in The New Yorker, click here). Dalrymple travels to Saundatti in north Karnataka to meet Rani, sketching the long history of the devadasi. Dedicated as children (by their family) to the goddess Yellama, they originally came from cultured families, serving as courtesans, dancers, and temple attendants; only in later centuries were they explicitly sexualized. From the 19th century, well-meaning Hindu reformers broke their links with the temples; in Karnataka further prohibitions were decreed in 1982, but only further demeaned and criminalised the practice, driving the devadasis underground; “several thousand girls, usually aged between six and nine years old, continue to be dedicated to the goddess annually.” As a government sign warns:

DEDICATING YOUR DAUGHTER IS UNCIVILISED BEHAVIOUR.

Today the women are low-caste Dalits directly involved in sex work. Their life expectancy is even lower than that of the theyyam dancers. Rani’s two daughters had died of AIDS, and she too is HIV-positive. Yet they still pride themselves on having a more exalted status than ordinary sex workers, being blessed by the goddess.

For Guardian coverage, see here and here. Here’s the BBC documentary Sex, death, and the gods (Beeban Kidron, 2010):

And two more films within a controversial representational field:

In The singer of epics Dalrymple returns north to Rajasthan with Mohan Bhopa, a hereditary bard and shaman. He had first encountered the genre twenty years earlier on a visit to Laxmi Chundawat in Jaipur, who had documented the epic in the 1970s; she even arranged for Mohan to perform for him. Introducing the work of Parry and Lord on Yugoslavian epics, Dalrymple marvels at the “Rajasthani Homers” who still perform in another epic tradition.

He had already written about Mohan for The New Yorker in 2006, inviting him to perform at several urban festivals; but now he travels with him and his wife to their home environment.

The bhopa are performers of epics, of which the most popular is The Epic of Pabuji. It is not merely entertainment, but a religious ritual. As with “precious scrolls” in China, the epic is rarely performed complete today, which would five nights from dusk to dawn. Punctuated by bhajan hymns and Hindi film songs, it is performed before a phad, a long religious painting on cloth (see e.g. here, here, and here), which also serves as a portable temple. Victor Mair’s 1989 book Painting and performance introduced such traditions around China and south Asia, including the Tibetan lami mani with their thangka.

bhopa 1989

Parbū Bhopo of Mārwāṛ Junction and his wife Rukmā Devī performing the epic of Pābūjī for a small audience in their own village in 1989. Parbū is using the bow of his fiddle to point to a narrative detail on the paṛ while he chants the equivalent section of the epic story.
Caption and photo: John D. Smith.

Again like the precious scrolls, the phad is treated with reverence; the bhopa themselves earn respect through their knowledge despite their low caste. Dalrymple learns that the motives of the rural audience “were less to hear the poetry than to use him as a sort of supernatural veterinary service”; the bhopa also protects children from djinns. Again, these are among the functions of rural Chinese bards.

The bhopa are illiterate—which stimulates their prodigious memory. They accompany their songs on dholak drum and ravanhatta (not a zither but a bowed lute)—a reminder of the rich instrumentarium of Indian folk cultures, another striking instance of which I showed in Gujurat.

The epic is performed by husband and wife in duet; Mohan was fortunate that his wife Batasi had become a fine singer too. But when Mohan died—all too soon after the visit to the rural home—their son (who had been unable to continue the vocation since his own wife turned out to be tone deaf) began performing the epic with his mother.

John D. Smith, working with the eminent Rajasthani folklorist Komal Kothari (for whose own work see e.g. here), wrote his PhD on the bhopa in the 1970s—you can find an updated edition of The epic of Pābūjī here, along with instructive images and audio/video examples.

When Smith returned to Rajasthan some twenty years later he found the art much impoverished by the drift to the cities and the popularity of cable TV and DVDs. FWIW, Dalrymple is not quite so gloomy about the future of the tradition.

The bhopa have been the subject of a succession of documentaries. Here’s Pabuji ki phad (Shammi Nanda, 2005):

See also e.g. here. The lost music of Rajasthan (BBC, 2011), a tour of various traditions., includes a brief scene with a bhopa from 25.45. Note also Daniel Neuman, Shubha Chaudhuri, with Komal Kothari, Bards, ballads and boundaries: an ethnographic atlas of music traditions in west Rajasthan (2007).

The red fairy takes us into Pakistan, to the Sufi shrines of rural Sindh, a centre of Hindu–Muslim syncretism. There Dalrymple visits Lal Peri, devotee of the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine at Sehwan Sharif. He witnesses the ecstatic dhammal devotional dance, with its massed kettle drums.

Lal Peri was the sort of deeply eccentric ascetic that both the Eastern Christians and Sufis have traditionally celebrated as Holy Fools. She was an illiterate, simple, and trusting woman, who saw the divine and miraculous everywhere. It was also clear that she had lived an unusually traumatic life, which had left her emotionally raw. She was in fact a triple refugee: first as a Muslim driven out of India into East Pakistan after Hindu–Muslim riots in the late 1960s; then as a Bihari driven out of East Pakistan at the creation of Bangladesh in 1971; and finally as a single woman taking refuge in the shrines of Sindh while struggling to live the life of a Sufi in the male-dominated and increasingly Talibanized society of Pakistan. […]

The longer I explored Sehwan Sharif, the more it became clear that, more even than most other Sufi shrines, this was a place where for once you saw religion acting to bring people together, not to divide them. Sufism here was not just something mystical and ethereal, but a force that demonstrably acted as a balm on India’s festering religious wounds. The shrine provided its often damaged and vulnerable devotees shelter and a refuge from the divisions and horrors of the world outside.

The Qalander dervishes

have chosen a life of wandering and calculated impropriety, seeking God on the road and in Sufi shrines through a regime of self-punishment and celibacy, while trying to generate a sense of religious ecstasy with the aid of music and dance and hallucinogens.

Lal Peri is fearful of the advance of Wahhabism.

As in 16th-century Europe, the reformers and puritans were on the rise, distrustful of music, images, festivals, and the devotional superstitions of saints’ shrines. As in Reformation Europe, they looked to the text alone for authority, and recuirted the bulk of their supporters from the newly literate urban middle class, who looked down on what they saw as the corrupt superstitions of the illiterate peasantry.

Several shrines had already been attacked. Dalrymple goes to meet the director of a new madrasa, who while cordial is severe in his views (“Musical instruments lead men astray and are sinful. They are forbidden, and these musicians are wrongdoers. With education we hope they will change their ways.”). He regards it as his duty to destroy all the mazars and dargahs.

Lal Peri takes Dalrymple to meet her pir at his desert retreat, who believes in the resilience of the Sufi tradition against the jihad of the mullahs. But in 2017 a suicide bombing inside the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar killed 90 and wounded over 300.

This clip gives a flavour of the festival:

In The monk’s tale Dalrymple visits Dharamsala to consult an elderly Tibetan monk from Kham who had reluctantly taken up arms in resistance to the Chinese invasion. He recalls his early monastic training, and the arrival of the Chinese forces in 1950. As repression escalated, Kham was the heartland of the Tibetan struggle. He joined the “Four Rivers, Six Ranges” resistance force (for links, see the work of Jamyang Norbu).

Though we acquired some old guns, we were outnumbered and knew nothing of fighting. All we knew was how to pray, not how to kill. As soon as we came across Chinese troops they put us to flight. It was a total fiasco.

After making his way to Lhasa to warn people of the imminent catastrophe, he describes the tension there that led to the escape to India of the Dalai Lama, for whom he served as escort and then as decoy while the Chinese went in pursuit.

After fleeing Tibet, from 1962 he spent many years in a secret CIA-trained Tibetan unit in the Indian army—but he finds himself fighting in the war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Always vexed at having abandoned the monastic precepts, not until 1986 could he retire to Dharamsala. In atonement for the violence he had committed as a soldier, he began to make printed prayer-flags, and in 1995 he renewed his monastic vows. In his old people’s home there, thirty of the 150 occupants had been engaged in a similar struggle against the Chinese.

Again, the exodus from Tibet of the Dalai Lama, and the resistance to Chinese occupation, are much-studied topics (see my roundup of posts on Tibet), with many biographical accounts. As a suitable illustration on film, do click here to watch the footage of the Dalai Lama’s “graduation” rituals in 1958–59!

In The maker of idols we return to the south, to Swamimalai in Tamil Nadu. Dalrymple meets Srikanda, a ritual artisan who comes from a long line of hereditary casters of bronze images for temple worship, dating back to the Chola empire.

There was a growing market for what he called “show pieces” for tourists and collectors, but the family’s main work was idols created in exactly the same manner as laid down by the ancient Hindu religious texts, the Shilpa Shastras, and specifically designed for temple worship.

Dalrymple reflects:

It seemed to me that Srikanda had mentioned three quite different ways in which an inanimate statue could become a god: by the channelling of divinity via the heart and hands of the sculptor; a ceremony of invocation when the eyes were chipped open [cf. “opening to the light” in China]; and through the faith of the devotee. I pointed this out to Srikanda, but he saw no contradiction; all that mattered was that at a certain point a miracle took place and the statue he had made became divine.

He attends a temple festival when the god statue is paraded on a chariot. He waxes lyrical about the sensual bronze statues of the Chola dynasty, and admires the complex discipline of Srikanda with his team in his workshop, where ritual also plays a role. He meets a singer of thevaram devotional songs before the gods. Typically, after the lineage’s 700 years of transmission, Srikanda’s son wants to become a computer engineer.

For ritual artisans in China, see Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing, Ritual paintings of Li Peisen, and the makers of masks for Nuo ritual drama.

The Lady Twilight takes us to a cremation ground in Bengal—dwelling place of Tantric sadhus, devotees of the goddess Tara, who celebrate the power of skulls and fresh blood.

Again, Dalrymple’s guide Manisha hints at a painful past: she was beaten by her husband, rejected by her mother-in-law, and had lost her home and her three daughters. For her Tara was a saviour, not a fearsome ogre. Although the ruling Communist Party in Bengal sometimes sent out Anti-Superstition Committees to persuade people to embrace more mainstream forms of Hinduism, for the inhabitants of the cremation ground is a place of illumination, despite its ghoulish reputation. And Dalrymple finds an

oddly villagey and almost cosy feel. There is a palpable sense of community. Among the vulnerable outcasts, lunatics, and misfits who have come to live there, and those who might be locked up, chained, sedated, hidden, mocked, or shunned elsewhere are here venerated and respected as enlightened lunatics full of crazy wisdom.

Dalrymple surveys the history of Tantrism and early Tantric sex—

an unimaginable distance away from the sort of faddish Tantra cults embraced by Western rock stars, with their celebration of aromatherapy and coitus reservatus, a movement well described by the French writer Michel Houllebecq as “a combination of bumping and grinding, fuzzy spirituality, and extreme egotism”.

But as with the Sufis, behind modern Tantrism lies “the idea of reaching God through opposing convention, ignoring social mores, and breaking taboos”.

Manisha confides,

I am beginning to think that Tantra only really works properly when it is coupled with intense devotion, with bhakti. When I first came here, I was very obsessed with skulls and the secrets of Tantra. I would do anything to collect new skulls and tend to them […].

But now my attention is more directed on Ma Tara herself, and increasingly I believe that the most important thing is to get close to her through devotional love.

Meanwhile Manisha’s partner Tapan Sadhu, himself deeply committed to the life of renunciation, punctuates their conversation with updates from the radio on the latest Test score:

“England are 270 for four!”, he shouted excitedly.

Still in Bengal, The song of the blind minstrel introduces the bauls, itinerant minstrels who practice their own form of renunciation.

Dalrymple attends a major festival at Kenduli where several thousand bauls gather each year. He talks with the blindman Kanai, who finds the lifestyle one of great freedom. His companion Debdas explains:

“He taught me everything, how to reject the outer garb of religion and to dive deep into the ocean of the heart.”

The ecstatic singing of the bauls is another popular topic, appearing early on the world music scene (see e.g. the introduction in The Rough Guide to world music, under “Bangladesh”). Here’s a short film:

Deben Bhattacharya was very much on the case of the bauls. His CD Bauls of Bengal: mystic songs from India was issued in 2001—here it is as a playlist:

Charles Capwell’s 1973 LP Indian street music: the Bauls of Bengal (again, playlist):

A track from the more reflective CD Shahjahan Miah: chants mystiques bâuls du Bangladesh (Inedit, 1992):

And Radha Bhava, from the female singer Parvathy Baul (as playlist):

* * *

The fluency with which Dalrymple’s characters appear to tell their life stories is presumably an authorial device, a concession to the demands of the genre. No-one has ever given me such a fluent account—many peasants just shrug and say “I ain’t never done nothing much… um, I’ve just tilled the fields and gone out to do ritual, like”, and my many biographical sketches have been pieced together over several years, as my mentors open up and I gradually think of more promising angles. And Dalrymple’s subjects seem to have a remarkable ability to explain things in a fashion that neatly resembles our own conceptualisations.

In some chapters he notes how his visits punctuate invitations at his behest to appear at urban festivals; yet despite his worthy cause of highlighting their own lives, more scholarly (and perhaps less readable) accounts flag the gulf between the status of fieldworkers and that of their subjects, and the complications that such relations involve. In this short clip Dalrymple introduces some of the ritual performers on stage:

Such urban performances are a compromise in a worthy cause, part of the continuum of festivals. I too have found it most instructive to take the Li family Daoists on tour in Europe (see e.g. here; cf. the Hua family shawm band at the 2002 Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road).

Anyway, Dalrymple does well to remind us of the riches of folk cultures by following the performers back to their local environments. Full of vividly-told stories, Nine lives makes an admirable book, extending the audience for Indian religious traditions way beyond the arcane realms of ethnography.

Cf. my extensive series on the very different spiritual milieu of north Indian raga, and under the Indian tag in the sidebar.

The Queen Mother of the West in Taiwan

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week for an audience with President Tsai Ing-wen was both bold and costly. As she tweeted,

America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.

But at such a highly sensitive moment in world affairs, her trip has inflamed relations with the PRC, prompting much ominous sabre-rattling from them; and according to many China-watchers, and indeed the US government, it was ill-advised. So far not only has the PRC regime escalated the war of words, but it is retaliating seriously by launching live-fire military drills.

Pelosi’s visit was illustrated by this striking image that has been making the rounds on social media:

Pelosi

The transliteration Nanxi Peiluoxi 南西 佩洛西 is felicitous (cf. Shuaike 帥克 for Švejk). Her Italian parents migrated west (xi 西), and her mother came from the south (nan 南); more to the point, in the image above the final xi character has been elided into the popular deity Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母). * It illustrates the, um, nexus between sacred and secular power that one finds so often in Chinese religion, both before and since the 1949 “Liberation” (such as the ritual associations of Hebei; see e.g. my Plucking the winds). And on opulent processions in both Taiwan and Fujian across the strait, such god images are borne aloft on palanquins to re-assert territorial boundaries.

Mazu
Mazu. Source.

Still, by contrast with Pelosi’s excursion, pilgrimages for the seafarers’ goddess Mazu 媽祖 have been a major factor since the 1980s in the political, economic, and cultural rapprochement of people on both sides of the strait (see e.g. here).

President Tsai also awarded Pelosi the civilian Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon (Qingyun xunzhang 卿雲勳章)—another ritual title (cf. deities such as Houtu, enfeoffed as Chengtian xiaofa Houtu huangdi 承天效法后土皇帝). Perhaps Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi’s Italian-American background further enhances the ritual connection, recalling the Madonna pilgrimage (another niangniang female deity) of Italian Harlem.

And as to Pelosi and Catholicism, click here for a discussion of an extraordinary image from the Chinese embassy in France, depicting the Virgin Mary (Pelosi) as a baby-stealing witch. 

For Pelosi’s “long history of opposing Beijing”, including her 1991 visit to Tiananmen to commemorate the victims of the 1989 demonstrations, click here.

Pelosi Tiananmen

Meanwhile, as rabid nationalist Hu Xijin of the Chinese Global Times denounced Pelosi’s visit, Chinese netizens have fabricated an unlikely fantasy love affair between them:

Pelosi Hu

Just as unlikely, “back in the USA”, for once, Fox News and Mitch McConnell—normally Pelosi’s harshest critics—are full of praise for her initiative.

* * *

Around the time of Obama’s visit to China in 2009, “Obamao” T-shirts (“serve the people”) were sold in Beijing before being banned:

ObamaoSource.

While the T-shirts made a popular kitsch image in Beijing, adroitly combining enthusiasm for a foreign icon with misplaced nostalgia for Mao, in the USA they were soon in demand among Obama’s opponents, who fatuously compared his health-care reform with the Holocaust.

The world is a complicated place (You Heard It Here First).


I suppose most people read it simply as “Nanxi Peiluoxi wangmu niangniang” rather than “Nanxi Peiluo Xiwangmu niangniang”, but it’s a nice ambiguity—cf. the classic story of the hilarious misconstruing of a report on Prince Sihanouk’s visit to China!

Lionesses, YAY and hmm

🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂

Euro headlines

The women’s Euro football tournament has been most inspiring, and the media coverage impressive too!

Amidst all the celebration, as the dénouement approached, two worthy talking points were gleefully slapped down by the PC-gone-mad brigade (cf. Stewart Lee).

RenardAs Anita Asante observed, three of this year’s four semi-final teams were dazzlingly white—the fourth, France, has a substantial and brilliant component of black and brown players, including the captain Wendie Renard.

The English women’s game hasn’t always been quite so white (Hope Powell, Alex Scott, Anita Asante, Nikita Parris, and so on; cf. Bend it like Beckham), but there is clearly a structural problem (see also here, and here). The world of commerce seems keen to celebrate some notional diversity, as in this advertisement. The English men’s squad is quite diverse, but when the team lost in the final of the recent Euros the black players became scapegoats, receiving racist abuse (see also my vignette in the Comments section below).

After the women’s semi-final, Woman’s hour hosted a rather innocuous discussion. Now, we all delight in England’s success (and that of Germany, for that matter, and the whole tournament); the contributions from Anita Asante, Robyn Cowen, and Jacqui Oatley were largely celebratory, but presenter Emma Barnett, reading out a query from a listener, also touched—very lightly—on the apparent sexism of the term “lionesses”.

Predictably, the tabloids lost no time in flying off the handle (Daily mail: “Fans slam calls to change England women’s football team’s ‘sexist’ Lionesses nickname“—the verbal “slam”, like “quiz”, as in “Cops Quiz Immigrants in Drugs Probe”, is a sure pointer to imminent fatuity). While the Loony Right rejoices in losing its rag, the issue seems to require the dispassionate analytical skills of a Janet Radcliffe Richards.

Critics like Piers Morgan and “Culture Secretary” Nadine Dorries (WTAF)—veritable Wittgensteins for our age—come to the defence of “lionesses”, so we can Rest Our Case. Dorries lived in Africa for a year, SO THERE! And Morgan called it “the single most pathetic virtue-signalling campaign ever. […] Just stick a cork in it, you wretched gender-deranged woke wastrels”. All we need for a Full House of Loonies is Jeremy Clarkson and Jacob Tree-Frog.

The Express sounds almost reasonable:

Championing a women’s football team whose nickname embodies female power and pack or team mentality through the image of a pride of lionesses is empowering to women and girls, not demeaning in a sexist way.

But while Anita Asante has no issue with the term lionesses, I find the discussion around zoological verisimilitude (“the FEMALE beasts do the hunting while the males sleep”—Take That!) somewhat of a red herring. Of course, English has a range of terms for male and female animals; of the latter, FWIW, most are separate words, with only lion, tiger, and leopard having female versions ending in “-ess”. To thicken the plot, the English men’s football team aren’t called “lions”—that’s a name for men’s rugby union teams.

I’m more concerned about the linguistic use of “–ess” to denote a variant of the assumed male norm. Besides the animal kingdom, words like actress, waitress, and sorceress have indeed been falling out of fashion, whereas princess (like the whole monarchical system) seems resilient. It’s no simple matter, but it doesn’t seem too revolutionary to query the use of a feminine ending when referring to women.

The Express insidiously undermined the feminist cause:

For many, the idea of changing the name from one of female empowerment to hide behind a more “masculine” term is in itself sexist. […] It is also contributing to the fatigue felt by many with those who identify as feminists [so there!] and nit-pick on such ideas which attempt to re-write femininity into a negative connotation.

Media discussion of sexist coverage, such as this from Grazia, seems to have been rare.

Anyway, all attempts (“these days“) at debating racism and sexism provide yet another rallying cry for the PC-gone-mad, anti-woke brigade, gleefully able to speak their own language again and scoff their bendy bananas, singing Rule Britannia! and waving their Union Jacks as they deplore judges who come down on the side of human rights—like the immigrant’s pet cat furore.

The tournament was delightful; but would it really be so unladylike to question the status quo (cf. Feminist humour)? None of this detracts from the celebration. For BBC TV, Alex Scott and Ian Wright were exhilarated at the same time as they faced the issues.

For more on women’s football (and women’s tennis, another inspiring story), see under A sporting medley: ritual and gender, including Belated recognition and Hope for our future.

Querying the notion of gender equality in Alevism

17+

Among the women commenting astutely in the recent online discussion on Freedom of Belief and Gender in Turkey was Ceren Ataş, who is part of a group called 17♀ Alevi women (Twitter: @17AleviKadinlar; Facebook, etc.).

Ceren Atas

At a considerable remove from the patriarchy of mainstream Islam, gender equality is a beacon of Alevism (cf. here and here)—so it’s worth listening to Alevi women challenging the truth of the notion, as Ceren Ataş did in her presentation (from 37.15), and succinctly here (following an interview with Gülfer Akkaya) on a useful forum (see also e.g. here).

Gendered identitiesA more detailed discussion is

  • Fazilet Ahu Öhmen, “Alevi women and patriarchy”, in
    Rasim Özgur Dönmez and Fazilet Ahu Öhmen (eds),
    Gendered identities: criticizing patriarchy in Turkey (2013).

As to theology, Alevis don’t subscribe to the genesis myth: all (both women and men) share one ungendered can “life, soul”. Still, the debate hinges on social experience. Alevi women may indeed enjoy rather greater latitude in lifestyle than their mainstream Sunni counterparts; and in cem ritual practice, both women and men take part actively—sitting, praying, and dancing together.

Alevi cem 17

Sema dance at cem ritual, Istanbul 2021.

However, even if flanked by a respected “Mother/Sister” wife, the (male) dede elder remains dominant. He is the mentor of the community, presiding over the cem and taking responsibility for social and economic decisions. The portraits of the Twelve (male) Imams gaze down sternly over the proceedings. Many Alevi women, discouraged from working outside the home (even in the big cities, where their earning power is important for the family), are still disadvantaged—partly as a consequence of seeking not to alienate the Sunni majority by appearing too different. Of course it’s hard to generalise, either about urban and rural Alevi women, or about women’s roles in Turkey more broadly. But the theory of equality deserves to be checked against social reality.

Some recent posts

anthem 2

If summer is distracting us somewhat, here’s a roundup of recent posts that may have slipped through the net.

On Kurdish culture (further to Dervishes of Kurdistan):

In praise of a wonderful Turkish TV series:

And I wrote a superficial introduction to

All these are part of an extensive series on West/Central Asia, not over-burdened by expertise…

Moving west from Songs of Asia Minor, I explored

Further west,

further east,

and still further east:

Also of note  are

And the weathermen [sic] say there’s more to come…

Gansu: Return to Dust

Li Ruijun

Though I’ve never ventured as far as Gansu, I’m always keen to include it in our picture of the culture of northwest China. *

Among the talented younger generation of Chinese film-makers is Li Ruijun 李睿珺 (b.1983). A native of Gaotai county of Zhangye prefecture in Gansu, his style is based on the challenges faced by the dwindling populations of his poor rural home.

I included his Fly with the crane (2012) in my list of documentaries and verismo movies on rural life in China. Inspired by films such as Bicycle thieves, Li (like recent Iranian directors) adheres to the splendid tradition of using amateur actors, judiciously training professionals to immerse themselves in the local lifestyle—as in his latest movie Return to dust (Yinru chenyan 隐入尘烟, 2022), premiered recently at the Berlin International Film Festival (interview; reviewed e.g. here). Here’s a trailer:

and an excerpt:

For more northwestern verismo, Jia Zhangke continues to bear the torch for rural Shanxi; and for Shaanbei, I’m still enamoured with The story of Qiu Ju, among the movies featured in Chinese film classics of the early reform era. Further south in rural Hunan, note the documentaries of Jiang Nengjie. Given the ongoing repression of the cultural scene, young directors are showing remarkable creativity in negotiating the shifting sands of censorship. Cf. the “native-place fiction” of Jia Pingwa and others.


* On Gansu, I’ve introduced

Inter-faith ping-pong

Mardin ping pong

Charming images from Mardin in Turkey, where World Table Tennis Day featured a match between an imam and a Syriac church chorister:

Mardin ping pong 2

Of course, the winner was friendship, peace, and table tennis. 

FatmaThis may sound a tad Kumbaya, * but it’s in line with the pleas of Fatma Yavuz for greater religious tolerance in Turkish society. Incorporating gender into the debate, she was among a group of thoughtful, articulate women speaking at a recent series of online panels on Freedom of Belief and Gender in Turkey—here’s the third session, with Fatma’s contribution from 49.18:

More on that initiative coming up soon.


* The wiki entry on Kumbaya is interesting. The song goes back way before the 1950s, when it emerged from its African roots in the southern States to enter into the wider consciousness via the civil rights movement. By the 1990s it was often used in sarcastic criticism of the kind of consensus-compromise politics “that allegedly does not examine the issues or is revelatory of cockeyed optimism”; “singing Kumbaya is not a foreign policy strategy”. More e.g. here.

Kaliarda, Lubunca, Polari

Fleeting flirtFrom the journal Πεταχτό Κόρτε (Fleeting Flirt), “one of the risqué magazines of the time, with half-naked women drawn on the front cover, cartoons with innuendo-laced captions showing ladies in negligées, poems and witticisms full of double entendres”. Source.

Further to the French Verlan, and the secret language of blind musicians in China, the work of Elias Petropoulos (see under Rebetika) led me to Kaliarda, the cant of underworld homosexuals in Athens. Nick Nicholas has written a whole series of twenty-four erudite articles online, starting here.

The speakers of Kaliarda were a cohesive social group, who associated with each other, had their own tavernas and beats, were persecuted by the police, and were socially marginalised. They were gay, they were bottoms (and spoke in derogatory terms about tops), and they referred to themselves with feminine terms. Some of them were prostitutes, and some of them we would now refer to as trans women. 

Kocek miniature
Köçek troupe at a fair” at Sultan Ahmed’s 1720 celebration of his son’s circumcision.
Source: wiki.

Here’s a short documentary:

In Turkey a similar cant called Lubunca [1] was also used by sex workers and the gay “community” (as one says These Days); indeed, in the late Ottoman era it was spoken by the cross-dressing male köcek dancers. Based on Romani, it contains elements of Greek, Arabic, Armenian, and French.

* * *

This leads us closer to (my) home with Polari, a British cant that has declined since the 1960s. Paul Baker has written two books on the topic. [2] Mixing Romance, Romani, and London slang, It was used by “some actors, circus and fairground showmen, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, sex workers, and the gay subculture”; it’s said to have been used by Punch and Judy street puppet performers. Later Polari incorporated some Yiddish and 1960s’ drug slang.

Some vocabulary:

  • bona good (in Shakespeare! Unlike Philomena Cunk’s putative neologisms)
  • ajax nearby
  • eek face
  • cod tacky
  • lattie room (to let)
  • nanti not, no
  • omi man
  • palone woman (from Italian paglione, “straw mattress”)
  • riah hair
  • rozzer cop (natural adversaries of the subculture, aka “Betty bracelets”, “lily law”, “hilda handcuffs”, “orderly daughters”). 
  • TBH “to be had”, sexually accessible
  • zhoosht smarten up
  • vada see.

I like arva, “to screw”, from Italian chiavare (cf. Burlesque-only’s immortal characterisation of Angela Merkel).

As in other secret languages such as that of blind musicians in China, numbers are interesting:

PolariSource: wiki.

Among words that have entered the mainstream lexicon are

  • acdc
  • barney
  • bevvy
  • bijou
  • blag
  • butch
  • camp
  • cottaging
  • hoofer
  • khazi
  • mince
  • ogle
  • scarper
  • slap [makeup]
  • strides
  • tod
  • [rough] trade.

Julian and Sandy

Polari minced into the wider public consciousness in the 1960s with Julian and Sandy on BBC Radio 4’s comedy series Round the Horne. I had little idea what it all meant, but that was kinda the point. There’s a clip on this page from Polari magazine.

As Paul Baker observes, after homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967, and as the gay liberation movement gained ground, the need for a secret language passed. While it was now associated with stereotypes often considered, well, naff, the camp image has maintained a certain frisson.

Here’s another bijou documentary:


[1] On Lubunca, the brief wiki article is augmented here; see also e.g.
https://hellenisteukontos.opoudjis.net/kaliarda-xiii-the-turkish-gay-cant/
https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/lubunca-lgbtq-language-slang-turkey
https://attitude.co.uk/article/the-secret-language-used-by-lgbtq-people-in-turkey-1/23524/
https://bianet.org/bianet/toplum/119989-sanatcilardan-ayrimciliga-nakka
https://web.archive.org/web/20210722160725/http://glm.uni-graz.at/etc/publications/GRP-Kyuchukov-Bakker-1999.pdf
https://www.ottomanhistorypodcast.com/2013/12/istanbul-slang.html
https://theworld.org/stories/2015-01-14/world-full-secret-languages-one-used-turkeys-lgbt-community
http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/1/17/turkish-languagesexworkers.html

[2] On Polari, some other sites include
https://web.archive.org/web/20190907173251/http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/polari.htm
https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2000/dec/10/life1.lifemagazine3
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jan/17/gayrights.comment
https://theconversation.com/a-brief-history-of-polari-the-curious-after-life-of-the-dead-language-for-gay-men-72599
and The Polari Bible.

New musics in Iran

Forbidden

I’ve been trying to get an impression of the underground music scene in Tehran.

While this sub-culture naturally attracts journalists and film-makers, this is not merely exotic decoration for our jaded palates, but a manifestation of urgent issues confronting young people in Iran—in particular, the options for women to express themselves within tight constraints (cf. Persepolis). This alternative scene makes an outlet for frustration (cf. GDR, China)—and often a route to emigration.

Your go-to authority on the variety of musicking of Iran is Laudan Nooshin. Further to her survey in The Rough Guide to world music (2009), she has published significantly on the popular music scene— [1] a scene, of course, that continues to evolve. 

A few vignettes that I’ve spotted via the media: [2]

On the underground metal scene, here’s the incisive short feature film Forbidden to see us scream in Tehran (Farbod Ardebili, 2020) (see e.g. here, here, and here):

Earlier films include Not an illusion (Torang Abedian, 2009) and No-one knows about Persian cats (Bahman Ghobadi, 2009):

Here’s an excerpt from No land’s song (Ayat Najafi, 2014; wiki, here, and here):

Sanam Pasha

For Sanam Pasha (who chose to remain in Iran) and her all-female rock band, here’s an interview from 2018:

A related scene is rap and hip-hop (e.g. here and here)—here’s Salome MC (wiki, and here):

And there’s a sub-culture of electronica.

Of course all this a minority culture (even in Tehran, let alone Iran), but the endeavours such musicians face are just some of the myriad challenges faced by women and men there daily.

On the broader soundscape, the Sonic Tehran project has much interesting material.

For more on Iran, see under my roundup of posts on West/Central Asia. See also Punk: a roundup.


[1] E.g.

  • “Subversion and countersubversion: power, control, and meaning in the new Iranian pop music”, in Annie J. Randall (ed.), Music, power, and politics (2004)
  • “Underground, overground: rock music and youth discourses in Iran” (2005)
  • “The language of rock: Iranian youth, popular music, and national identity”, in Mehdi Semati (ed.), Media, culture and society in Iran: living with globalization and the Islamic State (2007)
  • “ ‘Tomorrow is ours’: re-imagining nation, performing youth in the new Iranian pop music”, in Laudan Nooshin ed., Music and the play of power in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia (2009)
  • “Whose liberation? Iranian popular music and the fetishization of resistance” (2017).

[2] Some general introductions include
https://www.kierangosney.com/blog/banned-from-the-orthodoxy-punk-in-iran

https://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2014/jun/04/irans-rock-stars-and-their-underground-scene

Folk traditions of Greece: Domna Samiou

 

Samiou sings

Zooming out from rebetika, Greek traditional music is a varied repository of regional cultures. [1]

Foremost among collectors was Domna Samiou (1928–2012) (website; wiki). On her fine site, note the biography and her own memoirs

Her parents were part of the vast wave of Greeks expelled from Asia Minor in the population exchanges of 1922–23. Living in a shanty town on the edge of Athens, without water or electricity, she grew up in poverty. But at the age of 13, while attending night school, her life was transformed when she was trained by the musicologist and song collector Simon Karas (1905–99) (website, with some projects; wiki)—whose largely prescriptive work set forth from the study of Byzantine modes.

Samiou 1960s

Having endured German occupation and civil war, Samiou began working for the state-run radio station in 1954. Mass migration made Athens a convenient base to collect songs from all over mainland Greece and its islands. By 1963 she was travelling widely on recording trips. In 1971, with Greece still under the junta, she left the radio and started singing in public, opening the ears of younger generations to folk music. Inevitably, covering such a wide area, her forays sometimes remind me of the “gazing at flowers from horseback” style of lesser Chinese fieldworkers, with specially staged performances—but given her own background as a folk singer, the comparison would be quite unfair. Her surveys suggest the rich regional cultures of song, dance, and instrumental music—Thrace, Epirus, the Peloponnese, Asia Minor and Pontos, as well as the islands (Crete, Karpathos, Skyros, Skiathos, Lesbos, and so on).

From her 1966–67 TV series A musical travelogue with Domna Samiou (twenty episodes, usefully introduced here), here’s the programme on musicking in Evros, Thrace:

and on the music of refugees from Cappadoccia relocated to Plati (Macedonia) (1977):

This playlist includes some later videos:

Recording the mandilatos dance tune (2+2+3 beats—Taco taco burrito!):

Pontic Karsilimas from Marmara (Halkidiki), 1982:

Lazarines in west Macedonia, 1996:

We can explore a wealth of audio playlists here. Among Samiou’s albums of field recordings are

  • and, particularly dear to her heart, Songs of Asia Minor (playlist):

(don’t miss #18, a wonderful free-tempo violin solo by Stathis Koukoularis!)

In her documentary on the music of Asia Minor, Samiou herself sings a song she learned from her mother, a refugee from rural Smyrna; she is accompanied by violin, kanun zither, and goblet drum:

As society continued to change, Domna Samiou’s work laid an important basis for later, more detailed ethnographies of regional traditions.

See also Musics of Crete, The Pontic lyra, and cf. Italy: folk musicking.


[1] Apart from the material in this post, see e.g. this site; other starting points include wiki; The Rough Guide to world music and SonglinesThe New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, The Garland encyclopedia of world music, and so on.

Note also the Kounadis Archive Virtual Museum, full of wonderful early 78s of rebetika, amanes, folk and ecclesiastical music, and more.

Kounadis

 

Jazz in post-war Japan

Toshiko
Toshiko Akiyoshi, 1978. Source: wiki.

With jazz and Japan both the subject of many posts on this blog, it’s taken me a long time to clock jazz in Japan (“Like, hello?”)—alerted by a Guardian article (see also wiki).

Like WAM, the recordings and tours of the great jazzers have long had a devoted following in Japan. But as American culture became in demand in the aftermath of the Japanese defeat in World War Two, many fine musicians moved from mimicry to creating their own sound. For us, knowing where they come from (or even “are coming from”…), it may be tempting to seek a Japanese aesthetic in the music, such as the concept of ma “space” (see under Takemitsu) in Noh drama, or the inevitable Zen vibe. Irrespective of all that, my little playlist below has some impressive sounds—and there’s more to explore via the J Jazz reissues.

Toshiko Akiyoshi (b.1929) is the grande-dame of Japanese jazz pianists, still going strong in her 90s. “Discovered” in 1952 by Oscar Peterson, from 1973, now based in the States, she went on to form a big band with her husband Lew Tabackin. Click here for many playlists. Here’s Kyo-shu (Nostalgia), from The Toshiko trio, 1956:

Children in the temple ground, from the album Long yellow road (1974):

Kogun, from Road time (1976):

On sax, Koichi Matsukaze: At the room 427 (live, 1975—including an imaginative version of Lover man):

and Earth mother (1978):

Also on sax, Sadao Watanabe (b.1933), Orange express (1981):

Masabumi Kikuchi (1939–2015, piano), East wind (1974):

On trumpet, Terumasa Hino (b.1942)—Love nature (1971):

and Journey into my mind (1973):

Kohsuke Mine (sax), Mine (1970):

Tohru Aizawa
Tohru Aizawa with his band. Source: Guardian.

The Tohru Aizawa Quartet with their album Tachibana (1975):

Masahiko Satoh (b.1941, piano), Metempsychosis (1971)—with the astounding Stomu Yamash’ta:

and Edo Gigaku (2011):

See also Hiromi—among my roundup of posts on Japanese culture. My jazz medley includes not only the Golden Age (Billie, Miles, Trane, and so on) and more recent figures, but also some great jazz from Poland (whose own vibrant post-war scene reminds me of Japan) and Ethiopia, as well as notes on Istanbul and Shanghai.

Two women vocalists

As a change from Kurdish bards, the qin zither, and Mahler:

Not unlike The Haunted Pencil Getting Down with the Kids by grooving to avant-garde songstresses like Dames Nellie Melba and Vera Lynn (cf. Staving off old age), I’ve been inspired by the work of two rather younger women vocalists.

JJ

Brought up in Virginia, Judi Jackson moved to New York, building on the style of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone to create her own voice. Since 2017 she has been based in London.

Here’s Still, live at Ronnie’s:

Over the moon, 2018:

and at the London Jazz Festival in 2020:

For a roundup of posts under the jazz tag, click here.

* * *

CS

By way of contrast, the innovative Cleo Sol (Cleopatra Zvezdana Nikolic! I wish I was called that) is quite elusive, doing few live gigs. A denizen of Ladbroke Grove, her Serbian-Spanish mother and Jamaican father are both musicians. She has released two studio albums, Rose in the Dark (2020) (playlist):

and Mother (2021) (playlist):

In wiki’s choice phrase, “she is rumoured to be a member of” (I like that) Sault, an even more elusive “avant-soul” (WTF) collective (reviews e.g. here and here). Since 2019 they have released six studio albums, dazzling sound collages that include Untitled (Black is, 2020):

and Nine (2021):

Some of this feels more alien to me than Chinese ritual, but it’s another glimpse of the kind of creativity on my doorstep that has largely eluded me (cf. New British jazz), and it makes me very happy.

You may note that my amazing playlist of songs is dominated by women vocalists—quite right too.

Aynur: Kurdish popular music

Aynur

To follow my recent posts on the soundscapes of Istanbul (here and here):
for the contemporary scene, here’s the film Crossing the bridge: the sound of Istanbul (Fatih Akin, 2005), with German subtitles:

Among this wealth of creativity, I’ve been admiring the Kurdish–Alevi singer Aynur Doğan. As a recent Songlines article observes, the media find her a potent symbol for the cause of the Kurds, “Europe’s latest fetish”. Weary though I am of the “Songlines effect” (cf. here), she much deserves her reputation on the World Music scene.

Aynur was brought up in a small Alevi mountain town in Tunceli province of east Anatolia. In 1992, when she was 18, her parents brought her to Istanbul, anxious about the clashes between the Turkish military and the PKK. As she studied at the Arif Sağ Music School there, she came to focus on the Kurdish–Alevi songs of her youth (for one source of her inspiration, see Some Kurdish bards).

Her song Keçe Kurdan (“Kurdish girl”, 2004) was briefly banned in Turkey, misunderstood by some as inciting women to take up arms for the Kurdish cause rather than as a call for women’s rights. Here she performs it live in 2017:

In Crossing the bridge, Aynur’s scene (filmed in an old hamam) is exquisite (you might start watching from 54.32)—here’s her lament Ahmedo (with Italian subtitles, to keep us on our toes):

In 2005 she appeared with her band in a meyhane scene in Yavuz Turgul’s movie Gönül Yarası (“Lovelorn”) (click here).

Following the lifting of the ban on the use of the Kurdish language in public life in 2004, when it was at last heard on the national TV station TRT, this was a progressive period for the arts in Istanbul. But the scene soon suffered from Erdoğan’s drive to Islamify and Turkify society, affecting Turks and Kurds alike. And the situation in the Kurdish homeland of east Anatolia remained tense. Following the 2011 Istanbul Jazz Festival, when Aynur was shouted off the stage for not singing in Turkish, she left for Amsterdam in 2012. Here she is that year with an impressive line-up at the Morgenland Festival in Osnabrück:

Her first solo album in exile was the 2020 Hedûr, solace of time:

with the official video of the title song:

And here’s Min digo mele live, on a return visit to Istanbul in 2020 (lyrics here):

But the Turkish authorities continue to hamper performances of Kurdish pop.

For handy introductions to modern Turkish history and society, see Midnight at the Pera Palace and Turkey: what everyone needs to know—among many posts in the west/Central Asia tag.

Ethos: one of a kind

Ethos 1

After The Club, I’ve been hooked on Ethos, another fine Turkish TV series on Netflix (Berkun Oya, 2020), again popular both in Turkey and abroad. Among many reviews [1] is this perceptive critique by Haziran Düzkan on the feminist site 5Harfliler, from which I borrow below.

Here’s a trailer:

The Turkish title Bir başkadır (“One of a kind”) alludes to Ayten Alpman’s 1972 song Memleketim (“My homeland”). Set in Istanbul, the story exposes the faultlines within Turkish society. It’s centred around the mesmerising character of Meryem, played by Öykü Karayel. At once naïve and astute, Meryem is a part-time cleaner who lives on the outskirts of Istanbul with her ill-tempered brother Yasin and his traumatised wife Ruhiye. After experiencing fainting spells, Meryem consults the uptight psychiatrist Peri, whose culture is quite different: educated, affluent, and secular, she is prejudiced against openly religious people.

Ethos 2

Peri herself sees the therapist Gülbin, to whom she complains about the growing conservatism in Turkish society. Gülbin, from a Kurdish family, has a fraught relationship with her headscarved sister, a supporter of the ruling AKP Party; and she is having a desultory affair with the feckless playboy Sinan—as is the soap-opera star Melisa, who has some wise words to offer Peri when they meet socially. Meryem is under the influence of the benign hodja of the local mosque—whose daughter Hayrünnisa is a gay electronica fan.

Gradually the paths of this disparate group of urban, working, lonely women intersect; their attempts to seek meaningful relationships with men only exacerbate their sense of alienation.

The first episode ends—somewhat obscurely for outsiders like me—with footage from a concert by Ferdi Özbeğen, evoking a nostalgia for “old Turkey”—as Haziran Düzkan explains, as the gay son of an Armenian mother and a migrant father born in Crete, Özbeğen too carried a social burden on his shoulders. Düzkan also notes that while the finale offers a certain redemption, the (female) characters’ triumphs are petty, suggesting that the real “triumph” is that of the (male) director, “for showing us how much we missed talking about the society rather than getting sick and tired of talking about those in power”.

The filming is distinctive, with evocative scenes of the Istanbul landscape, and static portraits of the characters facing the camera framed against a sumptuous colour palette.

And there can be no better incentive to learn Turkish than to relish the nuance of Meryem’s speech in the exquisite dialogues with her therapist and with her suitor Hilmi.

Ethos 3


[1] E.g.
https://ewn.co.za/2021/01/05/turkey-s-latest-netflix-series-ethos-interrogates-the-country-s-social-divides

https://www.duvarenglish.com/ethos-has-put-us-all-in-the-therapists-office-and-asked-us-to-speak-article-55126

https://www.trtworld.com/life/netflix-s-ethos-takes-turkey-by-storm-41790

https://dmtalkies.com/ethos-tv-series-analysis/

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/do-not-burn-coffee-beans.

Li Shiyu on folk religion in Philadelphia

來而不往非禮也

LSY cover

We impertinent laowai are used to descending on a Chinese community to interpret its customs, but it’s less common to find Chinese ethnographies of religious life in Western societies.

Li Shiyu 李世瑜 (1922–2010) was a leading authority on Chinese sectarian religion and its “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷). Alongside his historical research, he was concerned to document religious life in current society—although it was hard to broach the latter in China after the 1949 revolution. In his work on the precious scrolls, I have also been impressed by his attention to performance practice. When I met him in the early 1990s he was still going strong, and still doing fieldwork.

Grootaers heying

Li Shiyu undertook his early field training in rural north China in 1947–48, on the eve of the Communist revolution, assisting his teacher, the Belgian Catholic missionary Willem Grootaers, in documenting village temples around the regions of Wanquan, Xuanhua, and Datong. [1] Whereas Grootaers was mainly concerned with listing the material evidence of “cultic units”, Li went further in describing sectarian activity. His resulting thesis Xianzai Huabei mimi zongjiao 现在华北秘密宗教 [Secret religions in China today], was published promptly in 1948, focusing on four sects including the Way of Yellow Heaven (also active in north Shanxi in counties such as Yanggao and Tianzhen, and later documented by scholars such as Cao Xinyu and Liang Jingzhi).

After the 1949 “Liberation” Li’s research was highly circumscribed (like that of countless other scholars such as Wang Shixiang), though he managed to continue his study of the precious scrolls, publishing a major catalogue in 1961. It was only after the liberalisations of the late 1970s following the collapse of the commune system that was he able to resume his work in earnest.

And in that early reform era, from 1984 to 1986 he also spent eighteen months as a Luce Scholar at Pennsylvania University. Hannibal Taubes (always ready to supply a stimulating lead: e.g. here, and here) alerts me to a chapter in Li Shiyu’s memoirs (Li Shiyu huiyilu 李世瑜回憶錄 [2011], pp.296–311) in which he attempted to apply the kind of field methods that he had acquired under Grootaers (described in pp.267–70) to the “folk religions” of the USA, with vignettes of the diverse Christian life of urban Philadelphia.

LSY opening

In his last six months there Li Shiyu made an ethnographic survey of church activity in the university district—an area of twenty streets and some 8,000 inhabitants. The 160 churches there might be large or small, with some shared by more than one denomination; seventeen were established Catholic and Protestant churches, while the others belonged to over seventy different groups that had mostly been formed since World War Two, some of them just small “house churches”.

LSY and deputy mayorWith the Mayor of Philadelphia.

My eyebrows were raised to read of Li Shiyu’s first port of call: in search of statistics, he began by consulting the very people he would never dream of going anywhere near in China—the Police Chiefs 公安局局长 (!) of the district and city. In China, local police archives (see Liu Shigu’s chapter for Fieldwork in modern Chinese history) would make most instructive sources on religious activity for the whole era of Maoist campaigns, but attempting access would be rash. Indeed, to Li Shiyu’s lasting anguish, his 1948 thesis had been used by the Public Security Bureau to suppress the very sectarian groups he had respectfully documented.

Anyway, when the Philadelphia police chiefs were unable to help, the City Council introduced him to the Mayor, who asked, “Why do you wanna know? You been sent by your government? Are you gonna give your report to them when you go back?”. [2] Li Shiyu replied that he was just doing academic research, nothing to do with the government—just as we might have to explain in China (cf. Nigel Barley in Cameroon, cited at the end of my post on The brief of ethnography).

In answer to Li Shiyu’s query whether churches needed to register when they opened, the Mayor explained how “freedom of religious belief” worked in the States; all people had to do was to find a property, ideally one bequeathed in someone’s will, tax-free and rent-free. He went on, “Some pastors are pitiable—unable to find a site, they have to rent one temporarily, paid by donations from the congregation or from their subsidiary occupation. Spreading the teachings is a good thing, it’s good for society, there’s no need to register with the police—so I dunno how many churches there are in Philly.”

Next Li Shiyu visited the Westminster Theological Seminary. But as one has to do in China, he soon gave up on officialdom, “going down” to the churches themselves, one by one. As he notes, in an unstable, even dangerous, American society, parents sought to prevent their children getting into trouble by introducing them to the spiritual power of the church (rather like the elders of Hebei ritual associations, as recalled by many villagers such as Cai An). Li absorbed himself in the intensity of sermons and choirs, getting to know congregation members. But rather than observing the mainstream churches, his experience in China doubtless prompted him to seek out some of the more less orthodox, charismatic groups—some of which forbade marriage or the owning of property.

To imbue us with the holy spirit, here’s a musical interlude from 1976 (which will get you in the mood for Aretha’s ecstatic Amazing Grace):

Li Shiyu’s survey makes fascinating reading in Chinese, bearing in mind his particular concerns, suggesting parallels with religious life in China. A case in point is the first, and most remarkable, of his nineteen vignettes, “The Holy Mother descends from the mountain” (Shengmu xiashan 圣母下山).

I doubt if Li Shiyu quite knew what he was getting into [3] when he stayed for ten days in a hostel on 36th Street, whose basement was the meeting place of the International Peace Mission. The mission was founded by the controversial African-American preacher Father Divine—here’s a short documentary:

After his death in 1965 the organisation was led by his white wife Edna Rose Ritchings, known as “Sweet Angel”, “Mother Divine”.

Mother DivineMother Divine signs her book for Li Shiyu.

In March 1986 Li Shiyu witnessed Mother Divine’s annual “descent from the mountain” (the “mountain” of her estate at Woodmont in the suburbs), and even made a speech as guest of honour at the banquet. But he can’t have been privy to Father Divine’s turbulent story or the Peace Mission’s intrigues. From 1971 Mother Divine was engaged in a dispute with cult leader Jim Jones, until he fled to Guyana in 1978 and instigated his followers to commit a horrific mass suicide there (subject of several documentaries, e.g. here)—alas, just the kind of cult that the Chinese state seizes on as a pretext to suppress peaceful gatherings of believers.

Li Shiyu goes on to introduce the Miracle Temple of Christ; he takes part in a “qigong” healing session, and a service involving “wild kissing”; he is struck by the silence of prayer at a Quaker (Kuike! 魁克) meeting (evidently “unprogrammed worship“), discovers Sister Tina’s lucrative psychic fortune-telling business, and observes a rather stressful immersive baptism. In an experiment that only the most intrepid fieldworker will care to contemplate, he confuses a couple of what sounds like Jehovah’s Witnesses by showing a genuine interest in their teachings, asking them etic questions like why there were so many denominations in Philadelphia, and their economic circumstances. And he describes the only occasion in visiting over a hundred churches when he was met by a hostile reception.

While Li Shiyu was in the States, Robert Orsi’s study of the Madonna cult in New York’s Italian Harlem was published, a book that would have impressed him.

* * *

Of course, Chinese scholars have long sought to understand “Western culture”; one might even see it as the mainstream of Chinese intellectual life since at least the May Fourth era (for science, philosophy, fiction, music, and so on)—I think, for example, of Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei. Though Western culture didn’t reside solely in advanced technology or reified masterpieces of high art, it was rare for Chinese scholars to have the curiosity (or means) to contemplate the ethnography of living Western societies.

Even making the transition from rural to urban ethnography is rather rare, let alone shifting one’s sights from rural China to urban America. Just as Western fieldworkers in China build on a considerable body of research by local scholars, within the USA such charismatic traditions attract much study. And like Western scholars making an initial survey in China, during Li Shiyu’s time in Philadelphia he could hardly engage with the complexities involved in documenting religious life, or address issues such as race, gender, poverty, migration, and social change.

Still, he clearly found the encounter most fruitful and suggestive. For Chinese readers, potentially, such studies might suggest that “superstitious” practices were not unique to a “backward” China, that they have their own social logic. Li Shiyu’s non-judgmental, etic viewpoint is refreshing.

Though he gives Christian Science an easy ride, when interviewed by a representative he encapsulates a significant issue: asked, “Why do you want to come to the States to study our folk religion?”, Li Shiyu replies feistily, “That’s a question I’d ask your scholars—why do you come to China to study our folk religion?!”, citing the Chinese proverb Lai er bu wang fei li ye 來而不往非禮也 “Not to reciprocate is against etiquette”. Click here for the more elaborate interview in The Christian Science Monitor

Despite his somewhat testy initial encounter with the Mayor, Li Shiyu clearly relished the ease of doing fieldwork in the States, without the fear of consequences that bedevilled research under Maoism in China. His sojourn in Philly must have made a welcome relief before he plunged back into the fray of fieldwork in China, as academic pursuits there became more free—if never free enough.


[1] See the detailed critique on the site of Hannibal Taubes, in four parts starting here; for bibliography, see n.1 in my article on The cult of Elder Hu.

[2] The Mayor was apparently Wilson Goode—who might well have been feeling sensitive since he was under the shadow of an investigation into the police’s botched attempt the previous year to clear the building occupied by the radical anarcho-primitivist cult MOVE, when a police helicopter had dropped a bomb that led to a fire destroying four city blocks, killing eleven (including five children) and leaving 240 people homeless (documentary here). Goode himself later went on to become a minister of religion.

[3] Rather as I had no idea in 1989 when I first witnessed the New Year’s rituals in Gaoluo that the village had been the scene of a major massacre in the 1900 Boxer uprising, and that the Catholics there had later been evangelised by Bishop Martina, who was accused of plotting to blow up the Communist leadership at the 1949 victory celebrations in Tiananmen: click here.

Kuzguncuk: nostalgia for cosmopolitanism

In an earlier post I began to introduce the delights of the mahalle neighbourhood of Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, just along the coast from the teeming hub of Üsküdar.

Kuzguncuk is the subject of many works in Turkish, including several books by Nedret Ebcim; and Suzan Nana Tarablus has written on its Jewish history. In English, a most thoughtful study on Kuzguncuk is

  • Amy Mills, Streets of memory: landscape, tolerance, and national identity in Istanbul (2010).

Mills cover

Cutting through the cosy nostalgic image, she finds that the neighbourhood’s landscape not only connotes feelings of “belonging and familiarity” connected to a “narrative of historic multiethnic harmony” but also makes these ideas appear to be uncontestably real, or true. The resulting nostalgia bolsters a version of Turkish nationalism that seems cosmopolitan and benign.

Whereas Kuzguncuk was long dominated by Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, their numbers dwindled through the 20th century, with Turkish Muslim immigrants coming to form the great majority there. But by around 2000, Turkish historians, journalists, memoirs, and novelists displayed a growing interest in minority issues, their nostalgic images articulating hopes for a tolerant, multicultural society. Kuzguncuk has become popular as a film set, and has been rapidly gentrifying, attracting a mixture of dwellers from relatively comfortable but diverse backgrounds.

Mills interrogates what it is that such images, and the landscape, conceal. Memory, amnesia, and violence are major themes (cf. China).

In the early 20th century, non-Muslim minorities and foreigners comprised 56% of Istanbul’s population, and were even more prominent as property owners, tradespeople, and skilled workers; by the end of the century, following massive emigration and the influx of Turks and Kurds, they were less than 1%.

However powerful the state may be in producing nationalist ideology, the ways in which people negotiate with it are inconsistent and unpredictable; individual identities are multiple and fragmented, and cohere, sometimes only briefly, in specific places.

The shared memory of the past is selective, fragmented, with tensions; as people remember or forget the Christian and Jewish past, they engage in self-censorship of dissonant information. In the face of the “contemporary malaise” of alienating social change, nostalgia “may appear to be escapist, romantic, or even regressive”. The 1942–43 Wealth Tax, the riots of 1955, and the 1964 expulsions have belatedly been acknowledged for Istanbul, but are still denied for Kuzguncuk, where they also had dire consequences.

Chapter 1 concerns the Ottoman background of the Istanbul mahalle neighbourhoods—which were neither monochromatic nor static. Migration to Istanbul increased through the 19th century; between 1840 and 1880 the population doubled to 800,000 (!).

map 2

Since at least the 19th century Kuzguncuk had mainly been populated by Armenians, Jews, and Greeks. In 1865, fire burned five hundred shops along the main street. In the process of reconstruction, a steamboat station was built, whereafter some elite Muslim families also began to move in. A 1914 census showed 1,600 Armenians, 400 Jews, 250 Greeks, 79 Muslims, and four foreigners, although the Armenian population had already started to decline after an 1896 decree expelling Armenian workers from Istanbul. By 1933, sources suggest that the population was still 90% non-Muslim.

Turkification under the new Republic from 1923 eroded religious and ethnic plurality. As economic power was transferred into the hands of Muslims, the “Citizen, Speak Turkish” campaign ran from 1928 through to the 1950s.

Kuzguncuk’s Armenian church, built in 1835, was rebuilt in 1861 and repaired in 1967. Of the two Greek Orthodox churches, the smaller one near the coast road was built in 1823, rebuilt in 1871, and restored in 1951; the larger church further up the main street was built in 1836, and restored in 1911.

church and mosque

Armenian church and mosque.

By the 1940s, migrants from the Black Sea region were settling in significant numbers in Kuzguncuk. The mosque next to the Armenian church was built in 1952, “the first moment in the neighbourhood’s long history when there were enough Muslim Kuzguncuklus to necessitate a local, regular, community gathering space.” By that time, as Mills notes, the Armenian community had virtually disappeared.

Still, even then, Kuzguncuklus who remember this period describe a culture in which it was common for residents to speak “a little Ladino, Greek, Armenian, or French”, and sharing the various religious holidays with their neighbours.

The Turkification of Istanbul intensified in the period after World War Two. While the Jews had tended to favour assimilation more than the Greeks and Armenians, after the 1942–3 Wealth Tax, which penalised minorities heavily, 30,000 Turkish Jews emigrated to the new state of Israel in 1948.

The anti-Greek riot of 1955—also impacting Armenians and Jews—and the expulsion of Greeks in 1964, led to further departures. By 1967 only around three thousand Greeks remained in Istanbul. The confiscation of minority-owned properties continued; many of these became homes to new waves of rural migrants. Between 1945 and 1975 Istanbul’s population swelled from one to four million. Ironically, “it is this very period that is nostalgically narrated in the dominant collective memory as one of tolerance, siblinghood, and belonging in the mahalle”.

By 2004 Kuzguncuk was home to under a hundred non-Muslims; the churches and synagogues are now maintained and attended mainly by Christians and Jews living elsewhere in the city (see Epiphany in Istanbul).

Chapter 2 shows how from the 1980s Kuzguncuk became a major backdrop for nostalgic memory-making in Istanbul. The mahalle’s material landscape “was popular precisely because the seeming reality of the memory so successfully obscured the tensions and disharmony of everyday life in Istanbul”. Indeed, the Kuzguncuk landscape had to be restored to conform to the image, not just by TV companies but by new immigrants to the mahalle, although they were themselves continuing its socio-economic transformation.

A common feature of the loss of community was the erosion of mahalle social life by families owning TVs and the disappearance of open-air cinema.

The TV series Perihan Abla began screening in 1986, portraying the interconnectedness of the lives of mahalle people—middle class, Turkish, and Muslim.

From 1978 the architect Cengiz Bektaş was the pioneer of restoration in Kuzguncuk, inspiring artists and professionals even before the wave of gentrification from the 1990s. His goal was to foster a sense of care and responsibility among residents, based on its (earlier) history of multiethnic tolerance. His work began from the dwellings said to have been occupied by a former Armenian artisan community near the ferry, but it didn’t actually bring this history to light.

Gentrification (common to various other districts of Istanbul) is a “lifestyle preference of a particular population”; but by contrast with earlier residents, it is typically led by smaller families, from urban backgrounds, well educated, with both spouses in work, connected to the outside world.

However, community in Kuzguncuk fails not only because of gentrification but simply because the same social and political divisions that fragment Istanbul society are also present in Kuzguncuk.

Kastamonu deli

While the media mostly portrays a romanticised fairytale, a 2002 novel evoked the social changes of the 1960s, with the influx of new rural migrants.

However unintentionally, the narrative of peace and tolerance embedded in the landscape of collective memory mahalle works to support the nationalist historical narrative of Istanbul life in that it obscures the traumas and events that pushed out the minority communities.

As we saw above, the Armenian church near the ferry dates from 1835, but the mosque next to it was only built in 1952. The church and the mosque seem to suggest that cosmopolitanism is alive and well in Kuzguncuk; what remains unspoken is the fact that the congregation of the 19th-century church is gone, replaced by the Muslims who attend the 20th-century mosque.

In Chapter 3 Mills discusses the “contested space” of the Bostan market garden, established by the Kuzguncuk Neighbourhood Association since 2000—another major symbol for nostalgia and community.

In a common instance of illegal expropriation, the state had confiscated the garden from a Greek family in 1977. Mills becomes aware of her own emotional investment in the project through a “disturbing and exhilarating” meeting with the last descendant of the original Greek owners, who embodied the sense of loss; her claims to the land and those of the Association turned out to be incompatible.

For some time after 1977 the status of the space was in limbo. Opposition to planned development grew from 1992, part of the wider protest movement against corruption, and further stimulated by the 1999 earthquake.

Active in the Association were young adults born in Kuzguncuk to parents of Black Sea migrant families who began arriving in the late 1930s, working with the professionals and artists who had joined them in the mahalle later.

The project was not without its critics. Some residents were wary of potential political activity; among those who failed to support the project were people from peripheral, poorer settlements, as well as the leaders of the churches and synagogue.

In Chapter 4, the mahalle’s nostalgic memories of a vibrant and tolerant social life sit uncomfortably alongside the collective silence surrounding the state-instigated anti-minority riots of 6th to 7th September 1955. Two hundred Greek families were still living in Kuzguncuk. While the riots, fomented by Turks arriving by boat, seem to have been less severe than in some other neighbourhoods on the Asian side of Istanbul, windows were smashed, houses ransacked, shops vandalised, the Greek churches damaged. The events marked a watershed in the exodus of minorities from Kuzguncuk.

The moment of contradiction hinges on the neighbourly relationships—that in a neighbourly place like Kuzguncuk such a thing couldn’t happen (and yet it did), that there was no difference between religions (and yet there was).

People’s contradictory memories reveal

the pressure of being caught between maintaining loyalty to one’s collective identity as a member of Turkish society and possessing personal knowledge of events or moments that challenged the popular historical narrative.

The memories of senior residents also suggest a distaste for the new immigrants from rural Anatolia, even if those people too shared the nostalgia for the former cohesion of the mahalle, partly to authenticate their own claims to belonging.

Chapter 5 discusses belonging and exclusion mainly through the fluid proprieties of female neighbourliness, and the intersecting identities of class, ethnicity, economic position, and regional origins. Mills describes visits between women, including the therapy of “reading” fortune in the coffee grounds (fal). Apart from positive aspects, such relations can also have oppressive implications, as in the ramifications of gossip.

As Mills observes, gentrification too is a gendered process. Mahalle norms reveal tensions for female residents who assume non-traditional gender roles, making difficult their access to the social support networks of the community.

Because of the ways it is threatened by new urban lifestyles, the mahalle has become exclusive, a space for those who already belong or for those who move here through previous friendships; it is not an inclusive community for otherwise disconnected newcomers.

Despite the small number of minorities in Kuzguncuk since the 1950s, intermarriage, common for several generations, remains something of a taboo topic.

Chapter 6 focuses on the Jewish history of Kuzguncuk. Today the main synagogue at the foot of the main street, though inconspicuous, is still maintained, with regular services. Another one, tucked away on Jacob street further up the hill, is currently inactive. Further still up the hill, the Jewish cemetery is now forlorn. Jews in Istanbul have tended to assimilate, a delicate balance that they have long performed in Turkish society; still, they remain vulnerable.

Mills learned much from a visit to Tel Aviv, where Jewish people who had emigrated from Kuzguncuk were keen to share their memories (including the anti-minority events before, during, and after World War Two)—underlining the silence that reigned within Istanbul.

After an absorbing section on early Jewish migrations to Istanbul, Mills describes the early 20th century. Their economic status varied; many were quite poor. They often spoke only Ladino, not Turkish. Jewish people migrated to the mahalle from other regions, and from elsewhere in Istanbul; some also moved away, to neighbourhoods on the European side. But Turkification under the Republic prompted an exodus. Emigration (from Kuzguncuk, and from Turkey) began to become common. It was a long process, increasing markedly in the 1940s, after the 1955 riots, and through the 1970s and 90s. As Muslim migrants continued to arrive from Anatolia, the mahalle’s former ethnic diversity was lost. Again Mills finds former Kuzguncuk residents now in Tel Aviv more prepared to discuss the 1942–3 Wealth Tax than those still living in Istanbul.

* * *

Mills is always sensitive to her own role, reflecting on the narratives that people offer her (and don’t). In conclusion, she asks

Whose cultural politics does the nostalgia for Istanbul’s cosmopolitanism serve? What does this nostalgia do? The nostalgia that foregrounds tolerance in enterethnic relationships obscures the tensions and violence of the processes through which the cosmopolitan city became nationally Turkish. By appearing to be real, by the ways in which the materiality of landscapes seem to authentically represent a tolerant multicultural past, this nostalgia preserves the illusions of the state, illusions that the nation is inclusive, that it does or can exist for all.

While both Turks and minorities comply with the code, the agreement is not entirely succeeding. […]

If nationalist, secularist, and Islamist intolerance is ever to subside in Istanbul, people must openly perceive that antiminority discrimination and oppression is a problem and must also imagine a peaceful, shared diversity to be possible. […]

Memories of cosmopolitanism must be examined for how they speak of loss and betrayal, and how they articulate a stake in the future of the city.

You can find more posts on Istanbul in this roundup; note in particular Midnight at the Pera Palace.

From Kuzguncuk, delightful as ever

The headscarf, emblem of the Chinese revolution

Images from 1968 (left) and 1980 (right); see here.

In north China the white cloth that male peasants tie around their heads became an emblem of the revolution. The custom long predated the 1949 Liberation, but was another casualty of the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

While the headgear was common throughout the north Chinese countryside, it is often associated with Shaanbei, revolutionary base from the 1930s. In this 1981 group photo from Yulin, only a couple of shawm players were wearing them (see Walking shrill), outnumbered by the peaked caps which were a more modern image of the revolution:

1981 photo

In the hill village of Yangjiagou, here’s the shawm player Chang Bingyou (1916–98), father of our friend Older Brother:

Chang Daye

Though fashion moved slowly in the countryside, by the time I visited Shaanbei in 1999 headscarves were already rare. Here’s the Yangjiagou band at a funeral in 1999:

YJG band

So it was purely in a spirit of nostalgia that we took this photo with Older Brother and Chouxiao in 1999:

YJG trio

But some older people in the region were still wearing the headscarf—here’s a band from Linxian (across the river in Shanxi) at the Baiyunshan temple fair in 2001:

BYS shawm band

Here’s Guo Yuhua with the last Yangjiagou villager still wearing it in 2005:

GYH chat with last headscarfed man

In the countryside south of Beijing, headscarves were also rare in Gaoluo by the 1990s. The wonderful He Yi was virtually the only villager who still wore one:

In the depth of winter villagers often wore protective earflaps:

GL wentan

Vocal liturgists perform for funeral, South Gaoluo 1995.

In Gaoluo even I resorted to headgear, affecting an English proletarian flat ’at.

See also Funerary headgear.

* * *

Meanwhile, a world away from the Chinese revolution:

JEG

English Baroque Soloists rehearsal: see Barbed comments.

The fine line between irony and Looking a Complete Twat is lost on the repugnant Minister for the 18th Century, “eternally trapped in the ridiculous fancy-dress outfit that he once wore for a laugh at a school party” (oh, I said that):

RM

And speaking of Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, here’s an instance of his characteristic gravitas:

BJ hat

Irony was also in full flow during the recent Opening of Parliament, with a crown worth billions of pounds, delivered in a gilded carriage, on display during a speech that neatly sidestepped the cost-of-living crisis (government advice: “Why not try earning more money?”):

Crown

As to clothing, one might note that men are not only free to choose for themselves, but that they are also kind enough to decide on behalf of women.

Well folks, I guess that’s just about it for tonight!

More Irish fiddlers

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

To follow What’s the craic?, just a tiny selection of some notable Irish fiddlers. * I’ll start with different generations in America:

Coleman

  • Michael Coleman (1891–1945) was born in County Sligo, emigrating to the USA as a young man:

Carroll

Doherty

He’s the subject of the 1972 documentary Fiddler on the road:

I still need greater immersion to appreciate the nuances of the various regional styles. The Donegal style is heard on the splendid Nimbus CD Fiddle sticks:

Among the fiddlers there are

Mhaonaigh

  • Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (b.1959), also known for her singing with Altan. Click here for two reels with Frankie Kennedy on flute (see also with Martin Hayes below);

and

Peoples

With Matt Malloy on flute:

For more Donegal fiddlers, see here.

Canny

  • Paddy Canny (1919–2008), in the East Clare style, a graduate of the Tulla Céilí Band.

With Frankie Gavin:

And with Kieran Hanrahan on banjo:

Hayes

  • Paddy’s nephew Martin Hayes (website; wiki) is blessed with a particularly enchanting style, often introspective yet capable of great energy (good appreciation here). I don’t always feel comfortable with guitar in Irish music, but I quite see why he relishes Denis Cahill’s sensitive accompaniment:

In this set they are joined by Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (whose bow-hold delights me) and Dermot Byrne:

And here he is with the Brooklyn-born Sligo fiddler Tony DeMarco:

Click here for Martin’s album Under the moon as a playlist.

Burke

  • Kevin Burke (b.1950) (website; wiki), based in London until moving to the States in the late 70s, plays in the Sligo style—here are two complete albums:

* * *

What a wealth of creative wisdom under all those nimble fingers, immersed in the style, each with their own lineages and influences, full of regional and personal variation—like shawm players in north China [Thought you were going to say that—Ed.].

See also Indian and world fiddles, and Some jazz fiddling.

 


* For introductions to regional styles, see e.g.

Daithí Kearney, Towards a regional understanding of Irish Traditional Music

Caoimhín Mac Aoidh on Regional Irish Fiddle Styles.

For a caveat from Chris Haigh, curiously without audio examples, click here.

For style more generally, Niall Keegan, The parameters of style in Irish Traditional Music.

Rom, Dom, Lom

kids

Do watch the fine documentary Buçuk [“The Half”] (Elmas Arus and Haluk Arus, 2010) on vimeo, an all-too-brief portrayal of the lives of three minority groups in Turkey: Rom around the Aegean, Thrace, and the Black Sea; Lom in the Armenian regions of Sivas, Erzincan, and Erzurum; and Dom in southeast Anatolia. *

Rom map

Elmas Arus is deeply involved in the campaign for Roma equality, with her campaign Zero Discrimination. Perhaps unavoidably, some of the filming looks exotic, contrasting with the articulate comments of locals and scholars on poverty, social issues, and discrimination. It deserves to be revamped with a more comprehensible version of the subtitles.

Among scenes are the work of a hereditary family of circumcisers and dentists; Lom basket weaving; blacksmiths; waste recycling; training dancing bears.

kemence

The soundtrack is effective throughout. From 6.57 an exhilarating sequence of musicking among the Dom people segues from Gaziantep to Mardin—reminding me yet again of how much we lose in “refined” society” by shackling music acquisition to the classroom (cf. the Growing into music project, and flamenco).

From 22.15 another musical sequence shows a Rom municipal wind band in Bergama north of Izmir; the only instance I know of folk violin played with a mute; and a female wedding group (cf. Afghanistan). Music makes a crucial income:

If we did not have this job, we would have died of hunger—no farm, no land, no income.

Urban demolition, as in the Sulukele quarter of Istanbul, is ironically followed by Erdoğan expressing support for the Roma in 2010. The film goes on to sketch weddings; the transition from nomadic to settled lives; the hıdırellez festival and the annual pilgrimage to Hacıbektaş. All the themes deserve more lengthy treatment.

In her excellent book Bury me standing, Isabel Fonseca only touches on Turkey in her chapter on the Bulgarian Roma, but it makes a fine introduction to the wider context around east central Europe.

This is the latest in my series on culture in Turkey.


* See e.g. here. Relevant wiki articles include

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_Turkey

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lom_people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dom_people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdal_of_Turkey

Rulan Chao Pian: an exhibition

Rulan 1

The Harvard Library has a new bilingual exhibition (until the end of August) on the life and work of Rulan Chao Pian 卞趙如蘭(1922–2013; here, and wiki), with rare books, original field recordings, and other material from her research and teaching.

Rulan 1941 Cambridge

1941, Cambridge, Mass. Source.

Daughter of the linguist Yuen Ren Chao, Rulan Chao Pian was a leading scholar of the performing arts and music history of China, teaching at Harvard from 1947 until her retirement in 1992. She was one of the founders of CHINOPERL. In 1974 she became the first Chinese American woman professor at Harvard. Soon after mainland China opened up with the liberalisations of the late 1970s she was active in researching and lecturing there, while spreading word abroad of the revival in performance traditions and scholarship.

Rulan 2

In her bibliography, note the wealth of articles on Peking opera and narrative singing. On early history, her 1969 book Sonq dynasty musical sources and their interpretation explored material that was already being interpreted by scholars like Yang Yinliu in China and Laurence Picken in England. See also the festschrift Themes and variations: essays in honor of Rulan Chao Pian, ed. Bell Yung and Joseph Lam (1994).

Ukraine: liturgy

Ukraine church 2

With Ukraine under grave threat, to complement my posts on modern history there and its popular and folk soundscapes, this seems a suitable time to reacquaint myself with my local Ukrainian church, just up the road in Acton.

The original Baptist church there, founded in 1895, was reconsecrated in 1978 as an Ukrainian Orthodox Church—properly called The Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalic Church, Cathedral of the Holy Transfiguration of Our Saviour. * The services are regularly streamed on Facebook—here’s the one I attended:

The building, unassuming from the outside, is lovely. The little choir, upstairs in the west gallery, punctuates the chanting of the priest.

Ukraine church 1

For the Catholic rite, I ventured to the West End, attending Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of the Holy Family in Exile in Duke street (website; Facebook, with a wealth of videos).

Duke street panorama

Source: church website.

It’s a larger building, converted for use as the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral since 1967. Upstairs in the middle of the horseshoe-shaped gallery, the choir of seven women and six men played a substantial role. 

My photos.

For such congregations ritual can serve to enhance solidarity, and at times of crisis, with their relatives and friends under assault back home, to provide consolation.

Ukrainians began settling in the UK in small numbers before World War One, the community increasing after World War Two. Other Ukrainian churches are also active around the UK (for the Orthodox church, click here, and for Catholic parishes, here), and elsewhere in the diaspora—such as the USA and Australia, where many services are shown on YouTube.

* * *

Refugees worship
Source.

Ritual marks division as well as unity. The long, complex history of both Orthodox and Catholic churches in Ukraine is inextricable from politics (see here, and wiki). The Orthodox church, having attempted for many centuries to assert its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, has sought autocephaly since 1992, ratified since 2018. From St. Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv, here are highlights of the first Liturgy of His Beatitude Epiphanius, Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine, Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine:

And now services have had to be held in bomb shelters, as Greek Catholic priests do here:

The many monasteries of Mount Athos, from which women are excluded,  are major sites for Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian Orthodox liturgies. Here’s part of the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy at the monastery of Xenophontos in 2019—the first celebration of the Epiphanius on Athos:

Since Athos has never added the more recent harmonic tradition of mixed-voice choirs, its monophonic male-voice choral groups sound all the more ancient.


* Wisely, they haven’t attempted to erect a signpost.

Women in early Irish music

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Kenny

Before the 1970s, women’s role in the transmission of traditional Irish music was only sporadically on public display. This lacuna, common around the world, is made good in

She went on to develop these themes in her book Trad nation: gender, sexuality, and race in Irish traditional music (2020).

Focusing on the period from 1890 to 1970, Slominski returns women to the historical narrative by exploring the “disjuncture between the documented public activity of women traditional musicians in early 20th-century Ireland and their subsequent erasure from the narrative of Irish traditional music history” (I gave a succinct introduction to studies of gender and music under my second post on flamenco).

In Irish music a few such women “were visible nationally or internationally, and tend to be remembered as extraordinary rather than exemplary”; many others were once known but have since been mostly forgotten outside their families and immediate communities. A third category was “an unknown and possibly significant number of women musicians [who] occupied social positions that rendered them invisible to the musical public sphere”. And a fourth included the “second-degree visibility” of mothers remembered as tradition-bearers whose names now appear mainly in connection with their sons.

Encoded in these categories is an unspoken assumption that traditional music’s historical gaze still belongs to male musicians. With rare exceptions, Irish traditional music’s texts have all been written by men, and the brain trust of the tradition still rests with its “gentlemen scholars.” Thus, nearly all the accounts and recordings we have of pre-1970 women musicians come from male authors, interviewers, and collectors.

Idealised women commonly appear in the media of the day as metaphors for the Irish nation:

Personifications of careworn Mother Ireland and long-tressed Erin linked homeland and hearth, and invariably cast the nation’s men in the roles of hero, protector, and dutiful son.

More promising are the biographical profiles by Francis O’Neill in Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913), even if he still largely conforms to the feminized personifications of the nation.

Slominski cites Habermas’s distinction between the “public sphere” (a forum for the shaping of state policy) and the “public” activities of the street; indeed, the public house was the domain of men.

The fiddler Bridget Kenny (“Mrs”) was daughter of piper John McDonough. In O’Neill’s account:

 Devotion to art does not appear to have unfavourably affected the size of Mrs Kenny’s family, for we are informed she is the prolific mother of thirteen children. Neither did the artistic temperament on both sides mar the domestic peace of the Kenny home, and, though the goddess of plenty slighted them in the distribution of her favours, have they not wealth in health and the parentage of a house full of rosy-cheeked sons and daughters, several of whom bid fair to rival their mother, “The Queen of Irish Fiddlers,” in the world of music.

Alas, I can’t set much store by the 1898 recording here, billed as her playing The high road to Galway—surely the playback speed is far too fast, and the pitch correspondingly too high?!

From a poor family, Mrs Kenny became a street musician, an “urban busker”. But O’Neill also stresses her success in music competitions. Her talents were recruited by the nationalist movement.

The dominant narrative held that pipers—whether common men or gentlemen—had once been respected members of society, but that the occupation and its practitioners had fallen into disrepute.

O’Neill again, describing the period following the great famine:

Changed conditions, lack of patronage, and other well-understood causes, forced this class of minstrels, many of them blind, to take to the highways for support—a form of mendicancy which brought their once honoured calling into disrepute.

A 1912 story:

The poverty-stricken piper became an object of contempt, and the contempt was naturally extended to his instrument, the cause of his indigence. It is only a few years since a friend of mine, a good fiddler, who expressed an intention of learning the pipes, was told by his relatives that if he did so disgrace himself he need never show his face at home again! Small wonder that the pipes ceased to be generally played just as the language ceased to be spoken and so many of the old customs to be observed! The race of “gentlemen pipers” had died out and no respectable person would touch the instrument.

If social disapproval fell upon men who made a living from playing the uilleann pipes (cf. shawm bands around the world), it was much worse for the women who did so from “dire necessity”, often after being widowed early. Among instances cited by O’Neill are Mollie Morrissey, May McCarthy, and the blind Nance the Piper.

By the early 20th century, piping was becoming a somewhat more respectable occupation for women, mainly by virtue of nationalist rhetoric.

Cultural nationalist beliefs in the early 20th century helped create an environment in which some parents allowed their daughters to learn the uilleann pipes, teachers agreed to teach them, and some newly-formed pipers’ clubs allowed women members.

Morrissey and McCarthy are portrayed as “young, graceful, and mild-mannered”. This account comes from 1905:

I give you an interesting portrait of Miss Mollie Morrissey of Cork, fideogist [player of the tin whistle?], harpist, pianist, violinist, bagpiper and stepdancer, at the age of fourteen. I venture to say that not many Irish colleens can boast of such a long list of accomplishments, but such are the attainments of this little girl, whose charming and unassuming manner has endeared her to all who know her. She is the youngest and most proficient female piper in Ireland, playing the famous Irish melodies with great expression, and is also a correct exponent of dance music. [….] The clever little artiste is decorated with many medals, won at competitions in piping and step-dancing, and at last year’s Oireachtas she carried off first prize in female hornpipe dancing from all comers, her graceful carriage and movements combined with precision being much admired. [….] Miss Morrissey got a special invitation […] to attend a reception during Pan-Celtic week, which she could not accept on account of being indisposed at the time.

As Slominski observes, her role here is merely to decorate the public practice of Irish cultural nationalism.

Unlike his accounts of male musicians, in which he uses nouns like “piper”, “fiddler”, “musician”, and “composer”, O’Neill’s profiles of these two women pipers rely on words like “learner”, “artiste”, “performer”, and of course, “daughter”, “girl”, and “colleen”.

For such women, even as they depended on musicking as an occupation, music was portrayed as a mere “accomplishment”, an accessory. This at least made them seem less threatening. “By considering a women’s musicianship peripheral to her identity, any expectation that she would continue playing through her adulthood was removed”—although they often did.

Farr

Finally Slominski contrasts the lives of Galway flute-player Mary Kilcar (c.1890–?) and fiddler Lucy Farr (née Kirwan, 1911­–2003). Mary’s playing was confined to the household, while Lucy took part in public musicking quite late, after reconnecting with her musical upbringing.

Mary was a spinster (as one said then) who lived with her sister. Their background seems to have been comfortable, and Mary may have had some formal education in music.

As a single and ageing woman in the socially conservative years of the Irish Free State, Mary would have been symbolically invisible: she was neither a mother nor a maiden in a society whose metaphors of nation defined the behaviour and aspirations of real women. However politically and rhetorically invisible, Mary’s position as spinster was legible within rural Irish society. The combination of her musicianship and her marital status, however, was not.

In a 1987 interview, Lucy recalled:

And there was a lady in the next village, and her name was Mary Kilcar, and she would be—when I was 20, she’d be about 40, and she played a flute, and—though she was never part of the scene in my young days— she never—women didn’t come down into the houses where the men were. You’d hear Mary Kilcar playing the flute inside in her own house, but you’d never see her in any house where there was music. And so one day, I was walking around, and I knocked at the door. “Oh!” she said, “Lucy Kirwan! Come in!” “Well,” I said, “I’ve come in because I’m playing the fiddle, and we’ve all heard you playing outside, but you never come to our neighborhood dos.” “Oh,” she says, “They wouldn’t have women—they wouldn’t at all them dos.” I said, “Well, we do, I do.” “Ah, but you’re living in the house where it is. I couldn’t, I couldn’t do that.”

As Slominski comments,

Lucy’s status as maidenly daughter of a musical father placed her, a future tradition bearer, on the receiving end of borne tradition. As a spinster, however, Mary was a transmissive dead end. […]she does not fit into the category through which most women musicians of her generation are remembered: as mothers who pass tunes down to their sons. […] For single women like Mary Kilcar, bodies out of reproductive circulation also meant tunes out of circulation.

Lucy moved to London in 1936, and after her marriage she only re-engaged with the music of her youth from the late 1950s (see this fine article). Although she enjoyed greater access to the musical public sphere than Mary, even in comparatively progressive London in the late 1960s she too described the discomfort of going out to sessions alone.

Here’s a short film:

* * *

Lucy Farr mentioned sessions with the fiddler Julia Clifford (1914–97: wiki, and here), who also moved to England:

Another musician who moved to England in the 1950s was the Irish traveller Margaret Barry (1917–89), a singer and banjo player. Here’s She moves through the fair:

and the first part of a documentary:

Now I’d like to learn more about early women harpers, singers, and dancers, and the challenges they faced.

Click here for Séamus Ennis playing the uilleann pipes and telling an almost related story.

Ukraine: traditional soundscapes

trombita

Hutsul master Mykhailo Tafiychuk demonstrates the trombita.

The great strength of Maria Sonevytsky’s excellent Wild music is the way she binds urban popular genres closely with the constantly changing social and political life of Ukraine. While she shows how avtentyka and etnomuzyka performers remould “traditional” rural cultures, the latter are not her main topic; and indeed (typically?), such local musicking, submerged under glossy media representations, may seem to have become vestigial.

Still, as a rank outsider (as with my impertinent forays into many areas of world music, largely untrammelled by any knowledge of the subject) I’m prompted to explore online sites to seek some sonic soundmarks, and to suggest the kind of fieldwork practised by Sonevytsky’s mentors.

Given that most folk musicking is based in life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I’m sorry that few of the tracks below provide much social context—online clips often tend towards the fakeloric. But a home video like this, from a 2004 village wedding in Kolomyja county, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, has a good honest feeling (and talking of avtentyka, even the weather is authentic):

For singing (largely “salvage” initiatives), note the videos on the Tree website, and the Polyphony project (website; YouTube channel). Sonevytsky herself collaborated in the Chornobyl songs project (2011), based on the long-term fieldwork of Yevhen Yefremov.

Here’s a solo kolomyjky song accompanied by fiddle at the summer solstice festival, also from Ivano-Frankivsk:

Some iconic instruments of the Hutsul people of the highlands in west Ukraine:

  • the long trembita horns (played over the wider Carpathian region) that gained fleeting celebrity with Ruslana’s winning Eurovision song in 2004 (see Wild music): here’s an introduction by the great Hutsul master Mykhailo Tafiychuk:

Here three trembitas accompany a funeral in 2009:

For funerals, see e.g. here.

This audio track also has good archive photos:

I’m still on the lookout for material on the surma shawm—clues welcome.

  • the tsymbaly hammered dulcimer is shown in the wedding above—in this 1992 clip it plays with fiddle and bass:

(cf. zithers of Iran and Turkey, Korea and China, Alpine).

  • the sopilka (among several types of wooden end-blown flute) is heard in a brief clip from the battlefront recently:

  • mol’far shamans with their drymba jews harp—demonstrated by Mikhail Nechay in 1991:

and here he is in 2009, interviewed by Maria Sonevytsky:

  • the duda / volynka bagpipe, again demonstrated by Mykhailo Tafiychuk:

(I’ve given some leads to bagpipes elsewhere under Vermeer, south Italy, the Rioja, and so on.)

  • Three short scenes with the Tafiychuk family:

and at a festival performance:

Click here for a discography of the Tafiychuks.

  • For early recordings of immigrant communities in New York and New Jersey (cf. the companion disc at the end of Folk traditions of Poland), here’s Ukrainian village music: historic recordings 1928-1933 (playlist):

And here’s a 1951 Folkways LP:

  • For the Crimean Tatars, here’s the first of three compilations on the emblematic qaytarma 7/8 dance (“traditional”, followed by “modern” and “retro” lists):

* * *

While folk musical activity changes constantly along with society (cf. Society and soundscape, and Musics lost and found), all this may remind us that it survives not merely in the commodified representations of urbanites; and that in Ukraine, to paraphrase its national anthem, rural culture is not dead yet.

For more readings on the history of modern Ukraine, click here. See also Ukraine: liturgy.
Cf. Folk traditions of Poland (indeed, Stanisław Mierczyński did fieldwork among the Hutsuls from 1934 to 1938); and Musical cultures of east Europe.

Returning to the Polyphony project for Ukraine, I suspect many people of my generation love this clip because it’s just the kind of chat we have with our own friends:

The Madonna of 115th street

festa 1

Source (image undated).

Having struggled with the dense theoretical terminology of ritual studies so ably surveyed by Catherine Bell, it’s a great pleasure to read the classic 1985 ethnography

  • Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: faith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950.

This study of “religion in the streets” describes the annual festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel on East 115th Street in New York, celebrated by poor immigrants from south Italy and their American-born or –raised children. [1]

Orsi cover

By the time that Orsi was visiting the neighbourhood the heyday of the festa was long past. Besides his own interviews, he consults copious written sources, notably Leonard Covello’s interviews from the late 1920s, as well as parish bulletins—in which women’s requests for graces were prominent—and novels.

This introductory sentence may seem simple, but it’s crucial:

It is the central assumption of this history that the celebration cannot be understood apart from an understanding of the people who took part in it.

Orsi constantly notes social and religious change. On procession, men and women were segregated until at least the 1940s. “As soon as economic capacity matched social aspiration, which allowed Italians to send their children to school, the entire grammar school of Our Lady of Mount Carmel marched in the procession by grade.” Before the community was powerful enough to make arrangements, the procession had to stop for passing trolley cars. But as the neighbourhood shrank, so did the procession.

He shows the disparaging stance of the official church towards “popular religion” (cf. De Martino on taranta in south Italy; and elsewhere, such as in China!), and the attempt to transform it into a vision of respectable American Catholicism, like its Irish or Polish adherents.

The immigrants made no distinction between “sacred” and “profane” elements of the festa: all had an integrated meaning. However, they did constantly distinguish religion and church. The festa was

the occasion on which the Italians of Harlem revealed to themselves and to others who they were, introduced their children to their most fundamental perceptions of reality, and attempted to deal with the many tensions and crises that arose because they were immigrants in a strange land and because of the particular nature of their deepest values.

The landscape of urban popular religion is also important, “a world of parks, stoops, alleyways, hallways, fire escapes, storefronts, traffic, police, courtyards, street crime, and street play”…

Chapter 1 gives a vivid description that will remind fieldworkers of popular festivals in many parts of the world; for me it recalls in some detail the “red and fiery” (see e.g. Chau, Religion in China, chapter 3) atmosphere of Chinese temple fairs. The convivial atmosphere of the festa lasted throughout the week surrounding the main day on 16th July. Pilgrims were hosted from out of town, apartments and streets cleaned, food prepared. Amidst a wealth of decorations American flags and the Italian tricolour were displayed. Orsi evokes processions, vows, graces, healing, people offering bundles of clothing; booths selling religious items, including wax replicas of afflicted human organs, statuettes of infants (for doll effigies, cf. The Houshan Daoists, under “Houshan since the 1980s”), and charms.

Orsi 9On procession the statue of the Madonna was carried on a float, with a guard of honour, fireworks, and incense, touring the parish (China again..). A powerful metaphor for submission was the carrying of heavy candles on procession. The boundaries of the community were defined both by the procession and by the smells and tastes of the festa, with feasting at home and on the streets.

At the rear of the procession, and into the church, came penitents—some barefoot, some crawling. The faithful sang south Italian religious chants; bands played Italian and American music; concerts were held in local parks; men gambled. At first the festa was led by merchants and businessmen; from the 1920s it was directed by the local elite of lawyers, politicians, and so on. Irish police kept the peace.

Orsi soon undermines the rosy image of this beguiling preliminary sketch. Chapter 2 describes the history of Italian immigration to Harlem. The small early communities in the 1870s kept expanding as arrivals fleeing hardship in Basilicata and Calabria added to the ethnic mix in East Harlem, experiencing a new kind of hardship. By the 1920s much of the neighbourhood was dominated by Italians. Conflict with the Irish population was particularly fierce.

Emigration was a family strategy for survival. With kinship networks strong, people’s main loyalty was to the family. They would send regular remittances back to south Italy. If early arrivals (mainly men) felt conflicted attitudes towards the homeland, the second and third generations continued to learn about the bonds with their culture, not least through Leonard Covello’s educational work from the 1920s. Household shrines were standard.

There was continuity, but within the context of disruption—“men separated from their wives and children, men and women separated from their parents and grandparents”. They felt the gulf between their aspirations and the harsh reality of life in Harlem. “Guilt that they were not doing enough, pressure to work harder and faster, and fear that they would be unsuccessful haunted the early arrivals”. They were anxious that family structures and norms would be eroded, and that they would become unrecognisable to their kin back home.

Their hunger for work made them vulnerable to exploitation. Apart from their household duties, women also worked in poorly paid jobs (giobba, job!). Boarding in substandard, densely-packed housing, the community suffered from poor health; infant mortality remained high until the 1930s. Crime and juvenile delinquency were common, with racketeers and gangs. The press seized on such problems. All this was far from the earthly paradise the migrants had imagined before setting out from Italy.

Here’s Helen Levitt’s silent film on street life in East Harlem in 1948:

Tensions within the community were partly based on regional origins, with particular rivalry between Neapolitans and Sicilians. Though Covello made a partial list of sixty-four regional societies in 1934, by then extreme regional loyalties were giving way to neighbourhood consciousness, led by the club, “part social club, part political organisation, and part athletic association”. At the same time, the residents were attached to their Harlem enclave, the sense of solidarity, its sounds, smells, and tastes—a feeling that, as often, was enhanced by nostalgia. Even during the Depression, when the community was hit hard, they cared for each other. Gradually many became Americans “by attrition”.

Chapter 3 describes the origins of the devotion to Mount Carmel in Italian Harlem. The Madonna shared the poverty of her worshippers, and her changing fortunes were closely linked to theirs. The faithful sought her aid for sickness, and during the Depression; for soldiers going off to fight in World War Two, and for children to do well in school.

In 1881 immigrants from Polla in Salerno formed a mutual aid society in the name of the Madonna, amongst whose major functions was to provide support for proper funeral ritual—partly a reflection of their sense of insecurity in the new environment. The first festa the society organised was held in 1882. At first these festas were intimate assemblies held in courtyards or small dwellings; they were lay-organised, with no priestly supervision. The immigrants knelt before a small printed picture of the Madonna, said the rosary, chanted the Magnificat, and enjoyed a communal meal. A priest appeared at the festa in 1883, leading Mass and joining in the procession; but he soon disappeared from the story.

Already by 1884 the festa was described as a great popular celebration. The community now had a statue of the Madonna, sent from her home at Polla. That year too, the Pallotine fathers arrived in the community, with a priest presiding over a little chapel in 111th Street; and the community built a church on 115th Street, which now became the official sponsor of the festa. As Orsi notes,

For the entire history of the devotion, this celebration of a woman, in which women were the central participants, was presided over by a public male authority.

In the early years the devotees of the Madonna had to worship in the basement of the church. But as the festa became more visible on the streets, more well-heeled visitors from other neighbourhoods came to gawp (cf. Mahler’s 1909 visit to the Lower East Side). Irish and other American Catholics took a dim view of the “pagan” popular devotion on display, which they found devoid of any understanding of “the great truths of religion”.

Orsi 5

After a series of complex debates with the Vatican, the statue of the Madonna was crowned in 1904, her golden decoration provided by donations of gold from immigrant families—rings, brooches, family heirlooms. In 1922 the interior of the church was renovated, and the following year the Madonna statue was enthroned on the main altar. The bell tower, completed in 1927, was rich in meaning for the community, who again gave generously for its construction. By now the church and the devotion belonged to the entire community of Italian Harlem, not to any particular neighbourhood or region of Italy.

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the coronation of the Madonna on 16th July 1929 was celebrated in great style, with the statue carried out onto the streets. By now the church was a major emblem of the community. If the Masses conducted by its priests were still not the focus of worship, families were now commonly holding their rites of passage there.

During World War Two women turned to the Madonna to protect their menfolk on distant battlefields, making vows that were still being kept until the 1960s. The troops also went into battle wearing scapulars bearing the image of the Madonna around their necks (again under The Houshan Daoists, cf. stories of Houtu rescuing soldiers in the Korean and Vietnam wars).

After Italy’s surrender to the allies in 1944, in a remarkable gesture of reconciliation towards former enemies of the USA, a service was held for five hundred Italian “ex-prisoners of war” who were held at an army base just outside New York. The church bell announced the end of the war; Madonna processions celebrated the peace.

By the 1950s the church took precedence over the popular cult. The community spirit of parish clubs and schools now fostered patriotism and anti-Communism. As former residents moved out to the boroughs, Italian Harlem was changing rapidly too, it was becoming Spanish Harlem. The power of the Madonna waned, and a new sense of loss emerged. By 1953,

the meaning of the festa was interior, controlled, a matter of the heart and not the street. The people have come out not to march and eat and cry in the hot streets, but to go to church.

Italian and English reports of the festa after 1947 seem to describe different events, the former stressing orderliness, the latter noting passion and fervour.

In Chapter 4 Orsi studies the domus-centred society of Italian Harlem, where the family was the “source of meaning and morals”. Even in recalling their homeland, they hardly knew an Italian nation (if they were aware of it at all, it was as an oppressor)—only the domus of their paese, with its discipline, loyalty, and mutual support. They contrasted this with American family values. Parents were anxious when their children married outside the community. The deep religiosity of the people was largely untrammelled by priests; as the priesthood seemed to compete with the domus, anticlericalism was a major theme. Individuals were seen in relation to the domus.

In the apartment building, doors were always open to neighbouring families. Christmas and baptisms were celebrations shared by the whole building. Rispetto was expected, both within and between families.

So far, this seems to play to the usual romantic clichés; but the chapter goes on to muddy the picture considerably. Rispetto was a “dark and complex” theme, implying “both love and fear, intimacy and distance”; the culture demanded obedience. The public nature of life and the policing of values could also be intimidating. When rispetto was violated, vergogna (shame) ensued.

Funerals came to acquire changing meanings. In the early period, they prompted painful reflections on whether emigration had been a wise decision; later, the community sought to reassure itself about the lasting strength of its values. As to the sacred shrines that adorned family apartments, “the home was not sacred because these figures were there, but, rather, these figures were there because the home was sacred”. But “loyalty to the domus could at times take on a real ferocity”. This was shown not only in hostility with Puerto Rican and black communities, but internally too: their rage was often turned inward.

Orsi warns against drawing a simple conclusion that the domus limited the ambitions of the Italian community: once they acquired skills in the labour market, they moved up the ladder. Later in the book he observes that dreams of “making America” were not incompatible with traditional modesty.

Chapter 5 continues to explore the way in which the family cracked under the very nature of Italian American life. Immigration was a traumatic experience; throughout its history, the domus was perceived as being in danger in American society.

Efforts to maintain the domus in all its authoritarian purity at the centre of the culture were driven by this dread of its imminent collapse. But the domus did not collapse, nor did it ever seem close to doing so in Italian Harlem; so we must consider whether the persistent sense of its fragility was not the expression of deep conflict within and ambivalence toward the domus itself. […]

The domus in Italian Harlem was the scene of bitter conflict and profound struggle.

Though not for public display, this was evident in the generational conflict between the Italian-born generations and their Italian American children, who mostly “seemed to exist in subtle and quiet alienation from each other”. Within the hierarchy of the domus, rivalries obtained, with father and oldest brother exercising particular power and competing. Other members of the family subtly undermined such authority. For younger men, taking part in sports was a significant outlet that also gave rise to conflict in the family.

The sexual life of young people was a minefield, with dating and courting closely policed by the “detective agency” of the extended family. Dates were a source of dread for both men and women; young women were expected to marry the first man they dated.

Orsi unpacks the Mafia myth. For many Italians, gangsters were romantic figures, helping to keep the community safe, protecting the virtue of its women: “willing to put their considerable cruelty at the service of the domus”, they enforced its values.

Everyone in the community knew that local mobsters spent most of their time in Italian Harlem extorting Italian merchants and running numbers games that took money away from the community. The mobsters were never presented as banditti who took from the rich and gave to Italian Harlem. […] Why did the domus need to be surrounded and the Madonna rescued by violent and cruel men? Why did the community make heroes out of these mobsters, if only in the tales they told, when they knew full well the reality of their crimes? Why did anger and violence assume such central places in the fantasies of Italian Harlem? And what was the threat to the domus that could be repelled only by such extreme measures? […] Symbols of aggression and repression, the mythical mafiosi embodied the complexity of feeling and anxiety which the people of Italian Harlem bore toward the domus.

He devotes several fine sections to the lives of women and the subtle ways in which they resisted the submission demanded of them. His unobtrusive feminism is one of the great strengths of the book.

Until the clergy at the church put a stop to it in the 1920s, it was a common occurrence at the annual festa for members of a family to drag one of the central women of their household down the aisle of the church. As they went along, the woman stuck her tongue out so that it touched the stones of the church floor, licking them as she was borne toward the Madonna. This disturbing ritual, which was deplored by visitors to the church in the early years of this century, clearly poses certain explicit questions about the role of women in the culture and in the family. Why was a woman dragged in this way by her family up to the figure of a divine and powerful woman? What was being expressed here of the inner life of the community? What were the community—and the women—learning as they observed this scene? To answer these questions, we must study the lives of women in the community, the nature of family life, relations between men and women, and attitudes toward the sacred woman on the altar on 115th Street.

Publicly the family was a theatrical display of patriarchy, but in private it was a matriarchy, albeit one exercised in subterranean ways. Married women were the guardians of traditional mores. Some older women were respected healers (cf. Chinese mediums), having brought from south Italy their skills in the rituals of protection from the evil eye. This also revealed the tension between the old world and the new. Where the mechanical techniques of American doctors could offer no hope of a cure, Italian female healers were summoned, whose stress was on the whole communal environment. Women also played a major role at funerals, bearing the public burden of mourning.

Modest behaviour was expected of young unmarried women. They were both “volcanoes ready to erupt and lambs wandering in a world of wolves”. Their upbringing was “fraught with anxiety and dread”.

Young women were summoned to a dangerous dance by their men. The latter made their advances—and then watched to see if they would be resisted as they wanted and expected to be. […] One false move would bring disaster down on them. […] Who had the real power here—the women who had to uphold the standards of the domus or the men who put them to the test?

Many men insisted that their wives should not learn English. In this stifling environment, rebellion was rare, and young women had to find more subtle ways of asserting their independence. Gradually, as women became better educated than men, one way in which they could loosen their bonds was through employment. They began finding clerical work—progress that was also resisted by the seniors of the family.

Women did appear in public, but street life was male-dominated. The religious experience of women was complex. Taking part in the devotion, besides confirming their roles in the community, they could also articulate their anxieties to the Madonna. Tensions between the women of the family was defused by the devotion.

In Chapter 6 Orsi gives sketches towards an inner history of immigration. Despite the importance of memory in shaping identity,

The distance of the immigrants from their lives in Italy, their complex feelings toward their homeland, and their hopes for a new beginning for themselves and especially for their children made them unwilling or unable to share their memories with their American-born or –raised children.

This was compounded by the generational tensions within the family.

Having sought to escape from the poverty of the homeland, immigrants found themselves ensnared in a different kind of poverty. Apart from their own sense of alienation, they also had to reckon with American xenophobia. As Covello recalled, “We were becoming Americans by learning how to be ashamed of our parents”.

This sets the scene for a return to the festa in Chapter 7. In the early period, when immigrants were mostly single men, “participation in the cult assuaged their complicated guilt”, their devotion to the Madonna (“mamma’s house”) representing their fidelity to “a moral and cultural system signified and dominated by women”. As they were joined by women from the homeland, they sought peace, protection, and pardon in the cult. The presence of the Madonna in East Harlem gave divine and maternal sanction to the immigrants’ decision to leave south Italy.

The procession itself was a kind of enactment of their journey. The 1928 souvenir journal described “the long and fatiguing journeys [viaggi]” to the shrine, trips that involved “enormous expense” for the devout. People stressed that the faithful came from “all over” for the annual celebration, stressing long trips that involved crossing water. As Italian Harlem dispersed after World War Two, “a new emphasis was placed on the journeys back to the shrine undertaken by those who had moved out of the community”. The festa was a return not only to their paese but to their mother.

Slowly the community developed a kind of pan-Italian patriotism. Mussolini was popular in East Harlem, “not as a Fascist but as a symbol of the forceful presence they were still groping for”. While the festa remained mainly a demonstration of continuity with the community’s south Italian roots, regional distinctions were already breaking down by 1928.

Orsi stresses the centrality of eating at the festa, again recalling the domus. “Food was symbol and sanction and sacrament, integrating the home, the streets, and the sacred”. The cult celebrated the whole texture of Italian humanity, so very different from the closed world of Protestant America.

People also beseeched the Madonna to heal domestic conflicts, minor maladies, nervous breakdowns, and other crises. Some stories reflect “a concern for the manifold threats of an urban environment, and all implicitly depict mothers and fathers distracted by a multitude of worries and anxieties”. After World War Two, upwardly-mobile Italians who had recently moved out might pray for the husband’s business or a daughter’s success in school. Often such prayers were answered. Healing stories

were the sacred, cathartic theatre of Italian Harlem: the community could derive a deep redemptive satisfaction from the threatened demise of the domus while looking forward to to the satisfaction’s of the domus’ final triumph.

The street was “a theatre of extremes, […] a carnival alternately beckoning and frightening. The devotion to Mount Carmel responded to this tension: it was the annual blessing and reclamation of the streets”.

The devotion, the church, and the monthly parish bulletins also helped to define and legitimate the local power structure.

At a time when Italian doctors, lawyers, and merchants were not welcomed into the American elite, they claimed an authority for themselves by advertising in the bulletin—as did politicians. American laws were judged by the values of the domus. With popular political campaigns, Fiorello LaGuardia, and then his protégé Vito Marcantonio (a former student of Covello), enacted progressive social legislation for better housing, as well as for full employment and safer working conditions.

Orsi 76

Orsi looks in more detail at the world of work, “hard wage labour at gruelling jobs under the supervision of other ethnic groups”. Men worked as rag-pickers, junk and bottle collectors, bootblacks, newsboys, beer sellers, candy makers, sign makers, barbers, pushcart vendors, dock workers, construction workers; women worked making artificial flowers at home and dressmakers in factories. They suffered worse than other groups from periods of unemployment. Their bosses sought to control any signs of socialist leanings. The festa, with its stress on reciprocal relations, energy and enthusiasm, offered a different vision from wage alienation. It was also a time when the faithful sought cures for workplace accidents and related traumas.

Religious sacrifice allows men and women to believe that they have some control over their destinies even when they fear that they are otherwise bound by severe economic and social constraints. […] In this way, religious experience becomes a realm of relative freedom in the midst of lives ruled by necessity.

The question arises, however, whether this religious behaviour is not, or does not become, masochistic, a desperate infliction of punishment on the self in a frustrated rage against the perception of powerlessness.

Again Orsi suggests that the devotion encouraged people to repress their rage against the domus by turning it inward. The two possibilities of sacrifice, entrapment and resolution, can hardly be separated.

And again Orsi interrogates the role of women. While men were in nominal control of the devotion, women were the central figures in its life. Yet at the same time that it offered them consolation, it reaffirmed those aspects of the culture which oppressed them: the source of their comfort was also the source of their entrapment. As one women commented succinctly,

I had a hard life. I got married and it got worse.

Among a wealth of case studies in the book is that of a young woman who in 1946 prayed fervently to the Madonna that her suitor would propose to her. She was grateful when he did so, but she soon found out that he behaved in ways that she could not approve of. Since there was no socially sanctioned way of breaking off the engagement, she again sought the help of the Madonna, strengthening her resolve to end the relationship and making a promise to attend weekly novenas. This ratified her decision, which would have found approval nowhere else in the community; and her attendance at the novenas demonstrated her constancy both to the community and to other suitors.

Orsi 142

Orsi cites a 1930 obituary notice which exploited the chance to instruct women in their duties, its “suffocatingly lyrical prose” concealing an “aesthetic of entrapment”. He ends the chapter with further reflections on the immigrants’ fear of secular power (inherited, indeed, from their ancestral oppression in south Italy):

Distant and self-serving authority, in their eyes, took sons away and sent them to distant wars that would profit only the wealthy, denied or granted them assistance, built housing projects in the neighbourhood from which they were then excluded on the basis of apparently unreasonable regulations designed to defeat them.

In conclusion, Chapter 8 discusses “the theology of the streets”.

Southern Italian popular religion gave voice to the despair of men and women long oppressed—oppressed with peculiar, sadistic ingenuity—and reinforced attitudes of resignation and fear, as well as a sense of the perversity of reality.

This was present in the Harlem devotion, but it was not the whole story.

Orsi notes the problems of reading the theology of such a people within its full social context. It’s not that the immigrants were silent about these issues: they wondered about the meaning of their lives, and pondered their place in the scheme of things. Nor was their theology merely a corruption or a poor assimilation of Catholic doctrine. They resented the American Catholic church’s belittling of their “pagan” faith. In the New World the devotion represented their determination to triumph over adversity.

They had brought their Madonna with them and every year they took her out into the streets where they lived. They would not allow religious officials, in this country or in Italy, to alienate them from the sacred. […]

The Italians of East Harlem revealed a sense of the insufficiency of a male God. Women seemed to doubt that a male God could understand their needs and hopes and so they turned to another, complementary divine figure whose life was full of suffering for her child, a story that resonated deeply with the economy of Italian American family life.

Of course, Orsi’s accounts of generational strife are variations of morality tales around the world. If all this looks like an instance of the crumbling of the strict “family values” such as one can find to various degrees in many, if not all, cultures, it’s a particularly well-documented one. And it shows a painful, confused transitional period, from which communities can apparently emerge.

While the Madonna cult often reminds me of Chinese temple fairs, accounts of the latter tend to be more celebratory, steering clear of the negative aspects of the cultures they represent, or merely indicting the bête-noire of state socialist repression as an alien force repressing an apparently timeless, ideal communal cohesion. This applies to studies of religious life not only in the PRC, but also, I think, in Taiwan, where the strength of traditional observances and values is stressed in implied contrast with those on the mainland. Many such accounts are more centred on liturgical texts and ritual sequences than on the lives of ordinary people.

Another major blessing of Orsi’s deeply humane book is that it bypasses the arcane apparatus of scholarly vocabulary that was already de rigueur in anthropology and ritual studies (see Catherine Bell’s fine surveys—in Ritual: perspectives and dimensions she praises the book for its exposition of orthopraxy—useful as the term may be, Orsi doesn’t even feel a need for it. This economy of jargon makes the text all the more instructive, besides being immensely readable.

* * *

Orsi provides substantial introductions to all three editions. The first is straightforward yet instructive. The second (2002) he calls “Fieldwork between the present and the past” (a crucial issue for China and elsewhere). As he set off on his project in the late 1970s, he aspired to becoming a “real” historian:

I have heard historians proudly say that they study only dead people, and in those early days I, too, was looking for dead people.

(cf. WAM, with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interview for the LA Phil!). With his discipline of religious studies still “wedded to textuality”, at first Orsi considered that it was the badge of the serious historian to trawl through dusty archives. His epiphany came with finding the papers of Leonard Covello, and by listening to women as he sat with them in their kitchens.

While by Orsi’s time the festa was a pale shadow of its former vibrancy, he found that there was no firm barrier between the present and the past. While one might say he had been unlucky to train as a historian rather than as an ethnographer, he soon broke the chains of that training.

I came to realise that I was learning as much from how people were talking to me as from what they were telling me, as much from what was going on around the stories as from the stories themselves.

Of course, his anxieties on undertaking the project were part of a wider critical re-assessment of the discipline of religious history under the stimulus of ethnography. He interrogates the “unnecessary and confusing boundaries” that sealed off “religion” from “popular religion”. Had his training then extended to anthropology (and indeed ritual studies), he would have found his natural domus—one that many scholars of religion in China still resist, immune to epiphany. Rather than regretting that Orsi didn’t discover the discipline of anthropology sooner, I rejoice in the way he discovered its lessons for himself in the field, rather as I did in China.

Even then Orsi was acutely conscious of gender issues. In the old “body–spirit” antinomy,

Associated with the corporal end of this dichotomy were women and the various concerns of everyday life, while spirit represented the public, the political, and the masculine. […] I found myself right in the vice of the antinomy that structured not only modern historiography but modern professionalism generally.

He also stresses power—not just the power of some over others, but “the power that circulates through cultural forms”, and the power of religion to “shape, orient, and limit the imagination”.

As he becomes aware, “fieldwork proceeds through relationships”. Such study is done not only among real people, but by real people too. “My interlocutors did not let me be invisible, drawing me out with questions about my life and experience”—just as I learned in Gaoluo.

This represents the refusal of otherness by the people we study; it is their determination not to be rendered alien.

He goes on:

On one level, it is useful to remember that the inert documents stored away in archives were once the living media of real people’s engagement with the unfolding events of their times. […] My method in telling the story of the Madonna and Italian Harlem was to bring the voices from the archives and the voices from the streets into relation, allowing them to challenge, amend, deepen, and correct each other.

On his later annual visits to the festa, a woman called Antoinette would always seek him out. “So you think the festa is dying out? Looks pretty good to me.” Orsi concedes that by observing that the festa was waning, he seemed to have fallen into the old trap of early anthropologists who believe they have arrived just in time to preserve a last glimpse of a primitive and disappearing world (see e.g. Musics lost and found). Such “romantic twilight elegies” came to be seen as serving colonial interests, legitimating the work of the ethnographer as a kind of preservationist.

I did have good reason in the early 1980s to think that the festa was not going to be around much longer. The crowds were dwindling. The old Italians in the neighbourhood were dying. Their children, who had moved away to the suburbs, seemed less and less interested in coming back, always more apprehensive about the safety of the neighbourhood…

So in a coda Orsi takes the opportunity of revising his story: “I had not foreseen the arrival of the Haitians. How could I?” By 2010 more Haitians were attending the festa than Italians, transforming it yet again. Orsi notes that whereas Italians held the Puerto Rican community responsible for the demise of Italian Harlem (even though it had been their own choice to move out), the Haitians came into “a special place of cherished memory to which Italian Americans of the second and third generations were themselves “returning”. The Haitians were not seen as taking anything away.

In the third introduction (2010), History, real presence, and the refusal to be purified, Orsi reflects further on changes in religious studies since the 1985 edition—while still refraining (wisely) from detailing changes in anthropology and ritual studies.

He illustrates the continuing story with letters that he regularly received from Italian Americans after the publication of the book, telling their own stories, blurring the line between the past and the present, and transforming themselves from the objects of history into its subjects and narrators.

While Orsi’s approach was in line with studies of working-class cultures at the time, he contrasts the growth of theoretical discourse:

History was being recast as a literary and ideological enterprise with only the most attenuated relationship to anything like a past that had really happened. […] The notion that scholars who studied other cultures or other times were representing in their writing the actual lived experience of the people in these other times and places had become risible and self-delusional, if not a corrupt alignment with power.

Still, he appreciates the increasing popularity of studies of “lived religion”.

The West has been reframed from the perspective of the rest of the world, where what goes on at the Madonna’s shrine is more common and familiar than the sanctioned practices of “modern” Western religion.

He came to explore the potential for accepting folk belief in “real presences”. Part of the modern “eradication of memory” is the forgetting

that not long ago, the gods, spirits, saints, ancestors, and demons were familiar and recognisable members of the social world, in miracles, apparitions, and devotions, amid the relationships of everyday life.

This dangerous amnesia he calls “purification”.

* * *

See also Pomodoro!, a perceptive social history of the tomato on both sides of the Atlantic. Cf. the Boas circle at Columbia; and note the remarkable recordings of piffero and ciaramella played by south Italian immigrants to New York and New Jersey in the early 1960s by the Lomaxes. All this amidst the more familiar ferment of New York life, not least the jazz scene

For a fine study of street gangs in modern Chicago, click here. For female deities in China and women’s participation in ritual there, see e.g. here and here. And among a wealth of discussions of fieldwork, note Bruce Jackson.


[1] Online sites like these have more recollections and images:

https://searchmytribe.com/life-as-an-italian-immigrant-in-east-harlem-new-york-1880-1950/

https://italianharlem.com/, not least this page on the festa in 1942

https://medium.com/harlem-focus/harlems-hidden-history-the-real-little-italy-was-uptown-ac613b023c6b

There must be early film footage of the procession, but I haven’t yet found any. Meanwhile in London, this silent clip shows the 1927 procession for Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Clerkenwell’s Little Italy:

Sound and sovereignty in Ukraine

Left: Ruslana, 2004. Right: Jamala, 2016.

How terribly timely to read

  • Maria Sonevytsky, Wild music: sound and sovereignty in Ukraine (2019)
    (introduction here; she has posted a basic reading list on Twitter—her tweets are generally most instructive—and do follow her text by listening to the tracks, some of which I feature below).

The book illuminates the troubled modern history of Ukraine through particular aspects of its popular soundscape. While such urban representations are Sonevytsky’s main focus, she has cogent remarks on how they borrow from regional traditions. Each chapter adds fascinating new dimensions to the story.

Wild music cover

In the Preface she situates herself as a “halfie”, a Ukrainian American unable to pass fully as Ukrainian while doing fieldwork there, and sometimes even a target of “suspicion, derision, or hostility”. Her parents had fled Ukraine during World War Two, and on her first visit there in 1991, aged 10, she discovered that her image had been a mirage:

the real place was alien, full of real people with complex and disadvantaged lives. In it, I was a strange misfit speaking an archaic dialect imprinted with privilege and distance.

After graduating in 1991, while listening to “the cool new bands that were emerging seemingly everywhere”, she first encountered the ethnomusicologists based at the L’viv Conservatoire, going on to study the urban revival of village styles known as avtentyka, guided by the authoritative Yevhen Yefremov.

The study of pop music has become an important strand of ethnomusicology, with Eurovision a major theme (see also here and here). Sonevytsky’s theme is “loosely bookended […] by the two revolutions that coincided with Ukraine’s two most prominent spectacles of global pop visibility” in the 2004 and 2016 contests.

The Introduction opens with the 2004 Eurovision in Istanbul, where Ruslana won the contest with Wild dances, a song that soon became an emblem of the Orange Revolution:

While Ukraine itself is “liminal”, a “quintessential borderland”, Sonevytsky explores the stereotype of “Wildness” associated with the Hutsul people of the western highlands, and the “erotic auto-exoticism” of etno-muzyka—among many instances in the book where I’m reminded of China’s portrayal of its ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs. I’d also like to read what Sonevytsky might have to say about The Rite of Spring.

This book asserts that Wildness structures much of how Ukrainians today envision their horizons of possibility, and that wild music is a key vector through which citizens debate what Ukraine has been what it is today, and, even more urgently, what it ought to be.

Soon after the Maidan Revolution and the Russian takeover of Crimea, she attended a performance at a rural festival where a Crimean Tatar trio “wilded” the national anthem, with its “rather uninspiring (and in 2014, dispiritingly apropros) title ‘Ukraine is not dead yet’ ”, in a rendition “stripped of its pomp and revitalised with wild feeling”.

She ponders “sovereign imaginaries” and the instability of nation-states, observing Ukraine’s multi-ethnic and multi-national population. She notes that since Independence in 1991, “the Ukrainian state has repeatedly proven its untrustworthiness, incompetence, and disregard for its non-elite subjects. […] Many Ukrainians across socio-economic categories suffer from revolutionary fatigue, having lived through many cycles of social collapse, revolutionary hope, and eventual disappointment.”

Sonevytsky notes that

This generation tends to reject the creeping nationalism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but they also do not fully embrace faltering models of European statehood. They are suspicious of voracious capitalism and understand the dangerous precedents of “actually existing socialism”.

Chapter One pursues Ruslana’s “transformation from a marginal figure of post-Soviet Ukrainian estrada to a global etno-pop star, and then to a political activist with ambitions to transform state policy and redefine Ukrainian futurity.” Ruslana first came to fame in 2002 with Znaiu Ya (“I know”), referencing tropes of Hutsul culture:

As Sonevytsky notes,

The project depicted a community based on qualities of essentialized Wildness but exclusive of other groups prevalent in Western Ukraine, many of whom also endure histories of objectification (this includes Jews, Roma, Poles, Armenians, and others).

This led to Ruslana releasing an album for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label and representing Ukraine at the 2004 Eurovision contest. From the press materials:

Here we see wild and sexy, hot and dangerous, mystic and knowledgeable about all the secrets of Carpathian mol’far (shamans) mountain Amazonkas. Fur and leather, dangerous games and unique meditations all of this charms and entertains you, gives shimmering in the heart.

Such representations commonly use folk instruments as symbolic props, such as trembita long horn, tsymbaly hammered dulcimer, and the drymba jews harp of the mol’far shaman.

Despite Ruslana’s involvement with ethnomusicologists in L’viv, such glossy exoticism was soon debated, not least by the Hutsuls themselves. Some of the discussion revolved around the archetype of “femininity”.

In 2005 Sonevytsky visited the Carpathian highlands, source of Ruslana’s inspiration, with a feeling of “naïve expectance”, such as many fieldworkers will have experienced, reaching the village of Kosmach where the Znaiu Ya video had largely been filmed (for a less glamorous Chinese scholarly  romanticization of Daoist ritual, cf. Debunking “living fossils”).

Familiar with the long history of Hutsul romanticization by L’viv urbanites, and as someone who thinks of herself as allergic to exoticizing rhetoric, I nonetheless briefly entertained the possibility that maybe, somehow, this would be “the place”, as the press release boasted, “where you find true Ukrainian exotics!”.

It soon transpired that the locals were underwhelmed by Ruslana’s repackaging of their culture (cf. the exploitation of Tibetan culture by a Han Chinese singer in Sister drum). This was not the kind of celebrity that the Hutsuls would have envisaged. Sonevytsky joined in a wedding procession, with guests “in festive, but not folkloric attire”, far from the portrayals of the media. Consulting authorities like the patriarch of the Tafiychuk family, she found considerable resentment of the Hutsuls’ “wild” image, along with some more nuanced views weighing their heightened profile and the stimulation of tourism against the price of “disgrace and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes”. Yet others took the hype in their stride. Wild dances

provoked anxious discourse among Hutsuls about whether Ukraine could be taken seriously as a “European” state if it portrayed itself as a cradle of ancient, primitive expressive culture. Wild dances represented an obstacle on the path to Ukraine’s integration into the European Union.

Given the Hutsuls’ “hybrid identities as a borderland people whose culture is fused from Hungarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Roma, and other elements”, Sonevytsky notes the irony of their adoption as emblems of “authentic” Ukrainian ethno-nationalism. (Note also Sergei Parajanov‘s 1964 film Shadows of forgotten ancestors, a fantastical drama based on Hutsul culture.)

Many urban intellectuals, too, bemoaned “the fact that Ukraine’s most visible post-Soviet cultural export to date came ensconced in leather and metal”. They recycled the sonorous slang term sharovarshchyna, the banal caricaturing of folk culture propounded by the former Soviet regime (cf. Kundera’s The joke)—although Sonevytsky, citing the work of Ana Hofman on Slovenian and Serbian state ensembles of the socialist era, offers the caveat that it wasn’t a monolithic style, and didn’t deprive musicians of agency.

As Ruslana’s focus shifted away from ethnic culture, her progression to “eco-activism rooted in a civically minded pragmatic patriotism“ is illustrated in the futuristic Wild energy (2008), addressing the need to oppose both female trafficking and Ukraine’s dependence on Russian energy imports:

In Chapter Two Sonevytsky reflects on the “freak cabaret” of the Dakh daughters, “Spice Girls with Molotov cocktails”, or “Pussy Riot—with good music”. Like many musicians, they set out by disavowing politics—Sonevytsky unpacks the various strands in the bourgeois ideal of artistic autonomy with thoughtful references (to which I might add the work of Christopher Small and Bruno Nettl), compounded in former Soviet states by antipathy towards the politicization of music. The Dakh daughters were only spurred to take up the cause with the Maidan Revolution in 2013, a performance that Sonevytsky analyses with typical insight.

Again, their mash-up of symbols (Indigenous femininity, revolutionary feminism, Hutsul rurality, experimental theatre) prompted opposing reactions, from “hipster rebellion” to”neofascist agitation”. And again, they sought “an articulation of Ukraine’s future as not either Western or Russian, but as something else”. One band member described the revolution as attempting to escape the “lack of joy” present in both “the puritanism of the west and repressiveness of the east”.

Dakh daughters

The band’s seven trained actors and musicians were managed by the influential impresario Vlad Troitsky. The Maidan performance of Hannusya was based on the lament of an elderly Hutsul woman, becoming a metaphor for survival.

In a section titled “On feminist fascists”, Sonevytsky introduces the topic of gender studies in Ukraine. She paid several visits to another celebrated partisan baba in the village of Kryvorivnia, and explains how the terms “fascism” and “neo-Nazism” (currently being touted by Putin) are a glib recurring slur. The Dakh daughters now subverted the notion of the World-War-Two Banderivka nationalist resistance to Soviet occupation (also with its base in western Ukraine).

Chapter Three examines the interesting failure of avtentyka singers on the reality TV competition Holos Kraïny (Voice of the Nation). Rather than merely bemoaning the banality of such shows, Sonevytsky perceives the failure as “an act of refusal of the limited musical forms that dominate Ukrainian media and an assertion of the ungovernability of Ukrainian rural expression”.

The young singer Oleksiz Zajets came from a rural background, going on to study with the influential Kyiv pedagogue Yevhen Yefremov. In the first edition of the show in 2011, Zajets disrupted the rules of the game through the strident timbre and volume of his voice. As the show’s host commented, “He wasn’t just born two hundred years too late, but two thousand years”. While the “coaches”, including Ruslana, concurred that his voice was outstanding, praising its “depth and wisdom”, they couldn’t find a way to corset it into the pop-dominated format of the show.

Of course, defining the term avtentyka is elusive. By contrast with the “fakelore” of sharovarshchyna, it may refer both to local singers in the countryside thought to be uncontaminated by colonial encounter and Soviet cultural policy, and to the urban performers and scholars who seek to emulate their style. Sonevytsky illustrates the latter with vignettes of her own studies in Manhattan with Yevhen Yefremov, who meticulously trained students in the technique and variational creativity of rural singing, seeking to remove traces of the choreographed Soviet choral style. Despite the limitations of what ethnomusicologists might regard as a crucial shift of context from rural life to the classroom,

Students do not learn an ür version of a song. Though field recordings are a kind of wellspring for avtentyka singers—many of whom were trained as ethnomusicologists in the late and post-Soviet era—contemporary avtentyka singers do not seek to simply recreate those field recordings. In fact, multiple field recordings of the same song are reference when possible to inform an interpretation. […]

So instead of perfecting the art of imitation, students are taught how to creatively utilise the conventions that govern these traditional songs in order to replicate them in as “authentic” a manner as possible, in part by exerting their own agency as singers.

I note Yefremov’s teaching with envy, since while the collection of folk-song has long been popular in China, the scholars there rarely take part in singing themselves, either in the field or after their return (cf. Participant observation, and Speaking from the heart).

Fieldworkers like Yefremov paid particular attention to calendrical ritual songs, absent from collections during the Soviet era—here, remarkably, Chinese fieldworkers have done well, having been diligent in collecting ritual music, both during the first fifteen years after the 1949 revolution (e.g. under Yang Yinliu) and since the 1980s’ reforms (e.g. the great Anthology).

Most of the rural voices that Ukrainian fieldworkers found were female:

Due to wars, famines (such as the 1932–33 Holodomor), and various Soviet social engineering projects that decimated the male population of Ukrainian citizens during the mid-20th century, women have been the primary subjects of post-World War Two Ukrainian ethnomusicological enquiry since they tend to constitute the vast majority of surviving village elders.

This is very clear from the Tree website and the Polyphony project.

Appearing in the second season of the TV show was Suzanna Karpenko, a Kyiv-based aventyka singer. Her background was similar to that of Zajets, but the show portrayed them very differently:

If Zajets was depicted as a quintessential rural bumpkin with a “natural voice” that is simply too rich to include in the competition, then Karpenko was portrayed as a scholar, whose intellectual investments in “real folklore” (that is, avtentyka) were rewarded when she was chosen to advance in the competition despite the melismatic gestures, huks [swooping cries], and timbral quality that made her voice and style largely incompatible with the pop songs she was asked to sing in later rounds. Tellingly, though they circulate in the same milieu of urban avtentyka singers in Kyiv, Karpenko was assimilated into the programme as an urban folklorist (where “folklore” became the operative term appended to her vocal style), whereas Zajets was depicted as either an idiot savant or a shaman; in either case, he was the unknowable, somewhat comic, rural other. […] The contestant who is portrayed as and embodies “real authenticity” is destined to failure, while the singer who is depicted as an urban expert—someone who has domesticated the village style—is at least permitted to compete.

Karpenko is a member of the ensemble Bozhychi, which she joined after leaving the influential Drevo (“Tree”) group, and also takes part in the Polyphony project. She was encouraged to take part in the show on learning that Oleh Skrypka (veteran of Soviet-era Ukrainian punk, and later a champion of etno-muzyka) would be among the coaches. Though she advanced in the competition, her non-pop timbre and rural stylistic flourishes led to her elimination.

Sonevytsky asks:

Is the failure of these singers to win merely an example of the triumph of cosmopolitan pop in the marketplace—and are we left with a bitter Adornian culture industry critique of homogenization? […] Is their participation just a cynical move on the part of television producers to add dramatic fodder by introducing these folklore revivalists as nostalgic oddities or rural buffoons?

The reader may be tempted to answer these questions with a simple Yes. But Sonevytsky observes when the avtentyka voice emerges from the “cloistered contexts” of the academy (and from the village?) to participate in the TV spectacle, “it is disruptive, introducing a heterogeneous notion of etnos into the constrained sovereign imaginaries available…” Still, for all her theorising on the “politics of refusal”, in the end avtentyka singers appear only rarely, and they certainly can’t progress far in the show. As she concedes, failure is still failure.

Again I’m reminded of similar shows in China, where there’s also a lasting hangover from the fakelore of the high state-socialist era, and yuanshengtai 原生态 (“original”, “unspoiled”) folk voices are sidelined, despite the best efforts of pundits like Tian Qing (for examples of the style, listen to the folk-song CDs in this post). See also Critiques of artistic competition.

Chapter Four turns to the Crimean Tatars, covering Radio Meydan, the soundscape of marshrutki microtransit buses, and Jamala’s Eurovision triumph in 2016. If Hutsul music relates to European folk cultures further west, the Sunni Muslim, Turkic-language Tatars of the Crimea lead us towards the East—glib polarities that Sonevytsky resists, along with many other Ukrainians.

On the forced deportation to Central Asia (mainly Uzbekistan) in 1944, here’s the movie Haytarma (Akhtem Seitablaiev, 2013):

Some 200,000 Crimean Tatars returned to the peninsula in the late 1980s—where they continued to suffer discrimination in the fields of civic, religious, and land rights. Radio Meydan began broadcasting from Simferopol in 2005, soon becoming a key expression of Crimean Tatar identity, while deferring to the authority of the post Soviet Ukrainian state. Sonevytsky describes the power of such community radio stations. As “tensions between the Indigenous population, the predominantly pro-Russian public, and the weak Ukrainian state simmered below the surface of everyday interactions”, Radio Meydan was variously interpreted as “Orientalist menace or strategic exoticism”. Despite its ambition to serve as a forum (meydan) for diversity, as Sonevytsky discovered on the marshrutki buses in 2008–2009, it soon became an “aural battleground of rival sovereign imaginaries”.

After some time the station also provided a launchpad for a new generation of pop musicians exploring the wider market for an amorphous “Eastern music”, within which distinctive Crimean Tatar sounds often lost their identity. The first Crimean Tatar hip-hop DJ to emerge was DJ Bebek, with his 2004 album Deportacia; he went on to create the iconic jingle for Radio Meydan.

The station was outlawed soon after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. With Russian-backed radio there now offering its own take on Crimean Tatar music, independent performers and broadcasters migrated both online and to Kyiv.

Sonevytsky ends the chapter with a brief section on the Crimean Tatar singer Jamala, whose 2016 Eurovision victory in Stockholm is fresher in the memory than that of Ruslana twelve years earlier. Her song 1944 won despite Russian complaints regarding its political overtones. Here it is In performance:

and in the official video:

As Sonevytsky comments,

Such aural assertions of cultural sovereignty in an international forum such as Eurovision act as a generative refusal to consent to the annexation. […] Through musical sounds coded as Eastern music, Crimean Tatars continue to contest their liminality, harnessing the representational force of such wild music to amplify their political claims within the shifting terrain of post-Soviet geopolitics.

Jamala is also the subject of a useful recent Twitter thread by Jennifer Carroll.

Chapter Five, “Ethno-chaos: provincialising Russia through Ukrainian world music”, discusses the Kyiv-based quartet DakhaBrakha, sister group to the Dakh daughters—both groups were by promoted by Vlad Troitsky. Their international career on the world music scene was launched at WOMAD in 2011. Again, they were closely involved in the 2014 Maidan Revolution, revising etno-muzyka into the slogan “ethno-chaos” and “refusing national mythologies of continuity and coherence”.

DakhaBrakha

The three women singers had all taken part in fieldtrips to collect rural songs, but the group’s inspirations were diverse. As Sonevytsky observes, the wide-ranging and sometimes indiscriminate incorporation of “disembodied sound markers” is standard practice in “world music”.

Here’s Carpathian rap from DakhaBrakha’s 2010 album Light—a bricolage of Hutsul, central Ukrainian rural, Soviet-era, and “global” material, elements which Sonevytsky analyses in turn:

Again, Ukrainian ethnomusicologists were underwhelmed by the foreign enthusiasm for DakhaBrakha’s “authentic” vocal style. The band give a subsidiary role to the accordion (cf. Accordion crimes), archetype of the Soviet socialist soundscape, using it in a functional rather than “elevated” way—a process that Sonevytsky regards as subversive.

Next she discusses Sagir Boyu (from The road, 2016), another gesture of solidarity with the Crimean Tatars—a joyous wedding song reworked as “a pensive and ultimately frenetic lament”:

Sonevytsky offers further reflections on the world music business. She is wary of sounding too celebratory. First, “it would be disingenuous to consider the members of DakhaBrakha as ‘subalterns’, given their origins in the eminently literate and urbane world of Ukrainian experimental theatre”. And their success comes within a world music industry governed by Euro-American capitalism. Still, she finds their path constructive, “an aesthetics of transformation, a product of Ukrainian modernity on its own terms—not filtered through the gaze of neighbouring states and entities”.

The Conclusion, “Dreamland: becoming acoustic citizens”, written in 2018, opens with Oleh Skrypka’s Dreamland summer festival outside Kyiv in 2015, still resolutely featuring a Crimean Area. Sonevytsky proposes the idea of “acoustic—rather than musical—citizenship”. She notes moments of tension at the festival. Reflecting on “revolutionary fatigue”, she asks “What comes next?”. Since publication, the answer seems at once appallingly predictable and (this week, at least, in that Putin’s invasion has given new life to Ukrainian and wider solidarity) somewhat optimistic.

Bingo

By way of the Russian war of disinformation, Sonevytsky returns to Jamala’s song 1944, which

reveals the politics of Eurovision to itself, exposing how rhetorics of international friendship mask the violent unresolved histories and ongoing conflicts between competitor states.

Since Jamala fled the invasion, she has been raising awareness by performing the song:

* * *

Sonevytsky sometimes steps back to interrogate her own partiality. With her focus on the niche of etno-muzyka and the cultures of Hutsuls and Crimean Tatars, she doesn’t attempt to cover the most commercially successful music such as estrada (I think of research on Chinese pop, where studies have been dominated by “alternative” bands—with the noble exception of Andrew Jones’s Like a knife). And she reminds us that the majority of Ukrainian citizens do not consume or engage in any way with etno-muzyka. Her focus, as well as her status as a Ukrainian American, hardly leaves space for her to consider pro-Russian viewpoints. Also, committed to the project of decolonising ethnomusicology, she deliberately downplays nationalism in music. Nor, I might add, does her remit cover the glut of young urban-based “roots” bands from west Ukraine and the wider Carpathian region, less political and less internationally hyped—for some of these, try the forgottengalicia website (cf. this page on the useful euromaidanpress site).

The book’s origin as a PhD thesis is revealed in its theoretical vocabulary, which some readers may find somewhat dense (and which I have cited only sparingly here); but, blending politics with soundscape most perceptively, Wild music richly deserves to be part of reading lists on the modern history of Ukraine.

Many of my interlocutors […] point out the potential futility of any music to do anything. I do not dispute that music has little power against bombs, or BUK missiles. But I do assert that the study of music cannot be consigned only to our study of “the good life” since it is so prominently enmeshed in systems of capital, and therefore in the operations of power, and—importantly—because it also holds the affective power to captivate imaginations, move bodies, and support political actions. The politics and aesthetics of wild music allow us to investigate how the good life is imagined in dark times.

It was almost inevitable that Ukraine would win Eurovision this year, with the “rap lullaby” Stefania by the Kalush orchestra.

Anyway, now everything will be different.

* * *

Here I boldly essayed a medley of more traditional soundscapes from Ukraine. See also William Noll on the fate of blind minstrels in Ukraine, with links to several sites; Folk traditions of Poland; and Musical cultures of east Europe, not least Retuning culture.

Broadening the theme, Music and conflict (ed. John O’Connell and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, 2010) has sections on music in war, music across boundaries, music after displacement, music and ideology, music in application, and music as conflict, with case studies from many regions of the world.
Among topics covered on this blog, I think of Afghanistan; the war of the Chinese state against the Tibetans, Uyghurs, and its own people (e.g. China: commemorating trauma, and Guo Yuhua); the genocide of First Nation peoples; Mali; and indeed Bach, haunted by the trauma of the Thirty Years War (Bach—and Daoist ritual, under “Ears, eyes, minds, bodies”).

Yet another Peak Week for British shame

Three shameful recent incidents in British politics.

Just when we thought Bumbling Boris could stoop no lower in plumbing the darkest depths of crass insensitivity, he goes and compares Ukraine’s heroic resistance to invasion with the freedom-loving spirit of Brexit.

Poroshenko

Most incisive was the riposte from former Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko, fighting for the very survival of his country. As was observed on Twitter, Brexit does indeed have something in common with the invasion of Ukraine—both being funded by Putin.

BoJo

The day that Boris Johnson’s government showed their compassion for people less fortunate.

What’s more, whereas in other countries the warm welcome for Ukrainian refugees is inspiring—

and indeed, ordinary British people have also shown such humanity—by contrast, the UK government (éminence grise Priti Patel) is living up to its reputation, still doing its utmost to put hurdles in the way of refugees.

Nazanin

In these terrible times, the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from six years of captivity was a rare moment of rejoicing. But soon she had the temerity to open her mouth, prompting a deluge of sexist and racist abuse—from both Tory politicians and their hangers-on (analysis here). In response, Marina Hyde wrote trenchantly as ever:

Many people are simply not happy with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s failure to react to her belated release like she’s just won Miss World in 1957. You know the playbook: deeply indebted tears at a flow volume that won’t disrupt the mascara; silence broken only by a pledge to work with children and animals. British children and British animals, just to be on the safe side. […]

And yet, having spent a lot of time at her press conference yesterday thanking a large number of individuals and organisations who played a part in her eventual release, Nazanin did mention the fact it took just the five successive foreign secretaries before something repeatedly promised to her actually happened. […]

isn’t the whole point about liberating someone from the clutches of some backward theocracy that you don’t immediately then go and tell her to know her place?

And this spoof from the splendid Michael Spicer also hits the spot:

I just think… you need to show a little bit of gratitude to the people who let you come over ‘ere.
Back over here. […]
And why does she look so healthy, by the way? Hostages are supposed to be malnourished and upset—she was glowing and articulate. How do you know she wasn’t just sunning herself for six years, having a jolly? I just think you’ve got to do things in a more British way when you come over ‘ere.
Come back over here.

Even Boris felt obliged to defend Nazanin, despite his form with prolonging her incarceration.

In praise of Fatma Yavuz

Fatma
(In the automatic Google translation of Turkish,
“he” and “him” should of course read “she” and “her”.)

The story of Fatma Yavuz (summed up here) encapsulates several age-old debates within Turkish society.

Born in Istanbul to a conservative family in Üsküdar, she graduated from the Imam Hatip high school there, and in 2000 from the Theology faculty of Marmara University. A devout Muslim, in 2004 she became a Qur’an course teacher for the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), teaching women and children there for fourteen years.

With cogent arguments, she disputed irrational decrees in Islam like the menstruation taboo; she sought to waive fees for children of poor families. Such rational thinking eventually led to her excommunication in 2019. She was then fired from her job at the Faith desk of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. Since 2017, with the 10th-anniversary commemorations of the murder of Hrant Dink, she has come to embrace Armenian identity. Her political affiliation is with the HDP People’s Democratic Party.

Under vitriolic attack from the mainstream Islamic establishment (further animated by misogyny), the sinister charge of “insulting Turkishness” was aired yet again. As she responded nobly,

I have the manners to know that it is the minimum requirement of civilisation to respect not only one’s own but all beliefs, and to share their joys and sorrows. In this respect, I approach every belief, every culture with respect; I try to understand, and to establish good relations; but I only worship what is necessary for my own faith.

She also rebuffs the accusations more specifically.

Fatma with Orthodox

On social media she celebrates the diversity of religious experience within Turkey (Alevi, Kurdish, Jewish; Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Christians; and indeed atheism), speaking up for belittled minorities, criticising human right violations—including terrorism in the name of religion—and supporting women’s and LGBT rights.

Among expressions of support for her vision, see e.g. here. Her cause has been championed by the Freedom of Belief Initiative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

Fatma cover

Now she tells the story in her book Hangi Diyanet? Bir Aforozun Öyküsü [Which Diyanet?: the story of an excommunication, 2022, reviewed e.g. here).

While one wonders if the resilient stance to which she is driven by the polarising effect of social media may be counterproductive (for some variant views, see e.g. here), Fatma Yavuz’s mission is to build bridges, setting forth from an entirely laudable desire to contribute to the creation of a more humane vision of Islam and to embrace the diversity of faiths.

See also Inter-faith ping-pong.

Three Women of Herat: a new edition!

Herat 1
Veronica Doubleday practising a piece with minstrel Shirin, Herat, mid-1970s.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the most recent calamity suffered by the people of Afghanistan had receded from the news; but both have heightened awareness of the trauma of conflict.

Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the splendid Eland Books (“the quintessential travel publisher”, in the words of Michael Palin), they have just issued a handsome new edition of Veronica Doubleday’s classic Three women of Herat (1988), which I introduced here.

Herat cover

Having last heard Veronica singing in a cameo for the launch of Musics lost and found in the Wigmore Hall (as WAM concert halls go, rather a satisfying venue, but still rather grandiose and formal), I sallied forth to Exmouth market (clearly still a great place to be young…) for a double celebration, held at the charming church hall of the Holy Redeemer (cf. Buildings and music). Veronica led a concert of live music, her intimate singing with daireh frame-drum accompanied by John Baily on rubab and dutar plucked lutes, with Sulaiman Haqpana on tabla.

Even before she begins to sing, Veronica’s gift for natural communication is revealed in her spoken introductions, portraying the world of women—notably as evinced in their wedding songs. Of course, through no-one’s fault, for a London audience to bask in exquisite singing in a cosy venue over a glass of wine is far removed from the sufferings of Afghan women today.

Wedding bands, 1970s.

The new edition contains a section of Veronica’s evocative photos. In her thoughtful Afterword she reflects on changing recent perceptions.

Now and then “the plight of Afghan women” resurfaces, but media images tend to stereotype Afghan women as downtrodden victims of abuse and violation—a simplistic message that does not reflect my own experience.

Still, reflecting on her visit to the Peshawar refugee camps (described further in her Epilogue to the original edition), she comments:

After all, men had choices. They could take up arms and fight, they could go and find work in the city, meet new people and adapt to their new surroundings. Women had no options. They were trapped at home with harrowing memories and the psychological pain of dislocation and isolation, impotent to act against the powerful forces that had transformed their lives.

Veronica relates her sporadic access to the stories of the women she befriended: news of the 1979 uprising in Herat, the visit to Peshawar in 1985, and a trip to Herat in 1994 on the eve of the Taliban takeover. She outlines the clandestine resilience of women’s culture even during those dark years of violence and forced marriages. In 2004 Veronica and John managed to visit Kabul and a dangerous but fast-developing Herat; and in 2014 they returned to Kabul—amidst heavy security—to teach and perform at the Afghan National Institute of Music. They continue to serve as ambassadors for an endangered culture, giving fund-raising concerts to support urgent charitable causes.

You really must buy this book! And as you read, do listen to the tracks, and watch the films, in my original post.

Catherine Bell on ritual

*For main page, click here!*
(under “Themes” in top menu)

Themes menu

RTRP quotes

I’ve just added a page outlining Catherine Bell’s masterly surveys of ritual and the history of ritual studies, where she considers themes that are also significant in the related disciplines of anthropology and ethnomusicology.

Bell astutely unpacks the wide range of scholarship on this slippery topic, interrogating the work of the seminal figures such as Durkheim, Eliade, Grimes, Geertz, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Bourdieu, Tambiah, Staal, and Victor Turner. Noting where their interpretations concur and diverge, she seeks “to break free of the circularity that has structured thinking about acting by undermining the very category of ritual itself”.

As a taster, just a few of her wise insights:

While the activities we think of as “ritual” can be found in many periods and places, the formal study of ritual is a relatively recent and localised phenomenon. When made the subject of systematic historical and comparative cultural analysis, ritual has offered new insights into the dynamics of religion, culture, and personhood. At the same time, it has proven to be a particularly complicated phenomenon for scholars to probe—because of the variety of activities that one may consider ritual, the multiplicity of perspectives one may legitimately take in interpreting them, and the way in which defining and interpreting ritual enter into the very construction of scholarship itself.

We focus on explaining those things that constitute a problem of some sort for us. Hence, we are highly motivated to use our own assumptions and experiences to explain that problem in such a way as to make our world more coherent, ordered, and meaningful.

Part of the dilemma of ritual change lies in the simple fact that rituals tend to present themselves as the unchanging, time-honoured customs of an enduring community. Even when no such claims are explicitly made within or outside the rite, a variety of cultural dynamics tend to make us take it for granted that rituals are old in some way; any suggestion that they may be rather recently minted can give rise to consternation and confusion. […]
It is pertinent to ask if a rite that is well over a thousand years old actually works today in the same way or means the same thing to people that it did when it was new, or only fifty or five hundred years old. […] Does the age of the rite, with its progressive distance from the rest of the social world, make it stand for something different today than centuries ago? Are meanings left behind or simply layered and relayered with new connotations and nuances?

I conclude the page with some thoughts on fieldwork, and my own experiences in China, setting forth from Bell’s comment:

Scholarship on ritual, as in many other areas, does not usually proceed so directly from data to theory. Most often, explicit theories or implicit assumptions lead scholars to find data that support or challenge these views. Hence, what counts as data will depend to a great extent on what one already has in mind, the problem that one is trying to solve.

The tanners of Zeytinburnu

Z cover

Following our visit to the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul [1] to seek the wisdom of a senior Bektashi couple, I’ve been admiring

It’s published in a bilingual edition, lavishly illustrated, with chapters on the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, holy springs and churches, lodges and mosques, the walls, health institutions, economy and demographics, and leisure.

Zeytinburnu map

I find the exemplary diachronic ethnography of the tanneries particularly impressive (cf. the cinematic climax of Jason Goodwin’s novel The Janissary tree), in the chapter on the Kazlıçeşme quarter (pp.100–153). I suppose I’m drawn to it partly by my interest in the changing social role, and technical expertise, of low-status craftsmen in China—including household Daoists, ritual artisans, coffin-bearers and grave-diggers.

In the 15th century, under Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, 360 tanneries were constructed in Kazlıçeşme. The great 17th-century ethnographer Evliya Çelebi described the scene:
(here and in other citations below I’ve revamped the somewhat unwieldy English translation, attempting—not necessarily reliably—to make it more reader-friendly, while inevitably sacrificing the nuance of the original)

In the Byzantine era, people coming from plague-afflicted regions could not enter Istanbul before staying at Yedikule [Kazlıçeşme] for seven days; this was called nazarta (quarantine). After the conquest, Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror resettled all the tanners and slaughterhouses to this region.

[Kazlıçeşme] is a developed town by the seaside. It has one large and seven small mosques, one inn, one bath, seven fountains, and three lodges. It has three hundred tannery shops, fifty glue workshops, and seventy string workshops. But few of the inhabitants are married; it is a bazaar of bachelors. During wartime, the town can mobilise five thousand strong tanner bachelors who are tough as iron and very courageous.

People who are not used to the foul smell of this town couldn’t tolerate it even for one moment. But for the inhabitants that smell is like musk and ambergris; they don’t like it when people who put on musk approach them. They treat others with respect and honour. They have abundant property. Their spiritual master, the late Ahi Evran, asked a caliph who was passing by with his skirt filled, “What’s that in your skirt?” He replied: “It’s kuruş (piasters, coins).” But he was actually carrying dog faeces—he gave this answer out of shame. Ahi Evran even recited prayers saying, “May Allah bestow blessings on your goods and supplies”. Thanks to such auspicious prayers, the trade of the leather workers has been prosperous, and they are always generous in treating others. Moreover, a leather trader called Hadji Ali had worked with dog faeces for forty years, and the English infidels wanted to buy his supply for forty thousand kuruş but failed to do so. This is a famous story.

A vivid image known beyond the town is the relief of a goose under the arch of a fountain, carved in white marble by a master craftsman. It’s indescribable in words; when people see it they think it’s alive. Hence the name Kazlıçeşme, Goose Fountain.

Goose relief

Source: wiki.

In another account, Evliya Çelebi surveys the trade over the wider city:

Evliya 1

Evliya 2

In that last paragraph, note the reference to the furriers on parade with their own Janissary band!  Among other guild parades that Evliya Çelebi documents are those of sable merchants, falconers, leopard- and lion-keepers, barbers, and acrobats (see under Musicking in Ottoman Istanbul).

The book goes on:

People who had committed a serious crime sought refuge in one of the tanneries at Kazlıçeşme, working there so as to evade conviction and rid themselves of state prosecution. Since the tanneries faced difficulties in finding workers, they took the risk of providing patronage to criminals. Around the 1720s, this state of affairs passed to kadi registers, and the state took active measures against the brigands who had converged at Kazlıçeşme. The names of the enterprises and the workers operating in the area were recorded in an effort to stop the brigands linking up again.

123

After the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the founding of the Republic, the tanneries were modernised in the 1920s. The chapter gives a list of seventeen factories, as well as a further ninety-six workshops. Besides Muslim Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were prominent in the trade.

106

Some tanneries were still operating in the early 1990s. We read fascinating interviews with elderly workers. Saim Çetintaşoğlu (b.1932) gave a vivid account:

The gate of Kazli’s bath was next to the house where I was born. I used this bath a lot during my childhood, so I recall it very well. Its basins and even floors were covered with marble. At the place where the carpenter Nayır brothers make cupboards for leather tradesmen were the changing room and cooling room. In the boiler room, the water was boiled in a square boiler, using leather remnants and cobs instead of wood or charcoal. There was a heavy odour everywhere. The boiler that opens to the cross street was named Çıkmaz Sokak (blind alley) after this. In 1950s Münir Altıer rented the bath and turned it into a tannery. When he died, the bath passed to metal workers, who have been doing casting work ever since then, such as Kaplan Deri and Kemal Kurban.

Bath-keeper Srap Zehra, the bath employees, and Osman the Cook used to live in this building. Opposite, where the tanneries are located today, lived Artaki, who provided the tanners with egg white, egg yolk, and cattle’s blood for polishing purposes. Kazlıçeşme’s headman, the blacksmith Cezmi Öztemir, lived there too. In the building of Faik Cihanoğlu lived charcoal seller Mustafa and Murat Gökçiğdem, imam of the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa mosque. The two-storey wooden house on the opposite corner was inhabited by Süleyman Effendi, owner of the Safa bar-restaurant at Yedikule.

Sara nightclub occupied an important place in the lives of the Kazli tradesmen. In the evenings, tanners used to go drinking there. Bahçeli restaurant, run by Pehlivan İbrahim, which one reached by climbing down a staircase near the Castle Gate, was famous as a venue frequented by tanners for drinks. Quarrels caused by the drunkards were settled at the gate of the military police to the right of the Castle Gate. Women, drinks, and insults were indispensable passions of tanners. Those who couldn’t help having a drink during working hours in the daytime stopped by Arap Şevket’s Kazliici bar.

At the site of Celil Tanatar, at the entrance to Karakol Street, was the stable of “everyone’s uncle”, the “walking bank” Abdürrahim Gezer, who was the backer of everyone at Kazli. Gezer owned two horses, one black and one white, and a fine phaeton. Originally working in the pumping business, Uncle Gezer was a benevolent Kazli property owner, an exceptional personality who had grown up among Greek rowdies and enjoyed giving money to people in need. Fifty years ago, the carts went about their work and phaetons carried passengers, bringing women to the Kazli baths from Samatya and Bakırköy. Unlike today, the passage through Demirhane Avenue was easy.

Kazlıçeşme, 1986.

Proceeding along Demirhane Avenue, on the site of Bekir Uyguner we come to two-storey wooden terrace houses. I lived on this terrace together with my father. Next door was Kirkor’s repair-house, and next to that was the three-part casting and lathing maintenance house belonging to Kazli’s backer Rami Bey. And on the site of the present Derimko was a two-storey white wooden house belonging to Kumcu (Sand-seller) Mustafa. In the red-brick house on the site of Hayati’s tannery at the beginning of Yeni Tabakhane Street resided Mustafa Ulus, the oldest and the best known machinery manufacturer. Here the houses ended and the stout-leather factory belonging to Kamhis began at the site of Alber Beresi.

Demirhane Avenue used to end at the factory of Alekos Dulos, which extended as far as Genc Osman Avenue. Because the coast road wasn’t yet built, there was no entry to Kazli through Genc Osman. The passage was made via Yedikule Gate, and one approached Demirhane between cemeteries. To the right of Demirhane Avenue was a spinning mill run by the British; in its garden was a large pool, with water channels. There were about twenty workers’ houses in a field full of trees. From this field one could get to the Kazli train station, which was in the form of a shed. At the site of Ümit Soytürk lived Muhittin Aga.

Mustafa Ulus and Dokumacılar Inn was the vegetable garden of Hüseyin Aga and Ayşe Hanım, where delicious tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and parsley were grown. When her husband died, Ayşe Hanım sold the place to the Çengiçs and bought a four-floor apartment block at Aksaray with the proceeds; the Çengiçs constructed an inn in the garden and rented out rooms to textile workers.

Near the mausoleum of Derya Ali Baba (who endowed all his property to the leather tradesmen and was probably the oldest leather tradesman in Kazlıçeşme) was the Guild Coffee-shop, which passed by inheritance from him down to us. One climbed up to it by two staircases, and people sat on berths around the walls. The administrative room of the association was entered via the coffee-shop, and its affairs were conducted at the back of the mausoleum. Beside the room, under black fig trees was the garden of the association. Later, a cookhouse was opened for the garden workers, run by the late Ahmet Ahmet İşbilen. During the tenure of Cezmi Öztemir the Guild Coffee-shop was shut down and a building was constructed in its place; the first floor was rented to Yapı Kredi Bank, while the upper floor was allocated to the association. In this way, the mausoleum area was invigorated.

Beyond the Guild Coffee-shop were restaurants, the Kazli Bakery, the porters’ coffee-shop, the cartwrights’ coffee-shop, and the restaurant of Cemil the Cook. Next to Mumhane [Wax-house] cul-de-sac were Greengrocer Hüsamettin’s father Hadji Mustafa’s restaurant, Zemci the Butcher, coffee-maker Acem Şaban, and a large recreation area at the back of Kazlıçeşme. Next to that was Acem Süreya’s coffee-shop, with bachelors’ rooms at Taş Han [Stone Inn] above. After becoming Süreya’s son-in-law, Policeman Memduh ran this coffee-shop for many years. Along with Taş Han it was turned into a tannery, with the open space behind the fountain enclosed by a wall. This ancient fountain, which hadn’t failed to supply water to everyone for five centuries, was cast into the middle of the street; still, it hasn’t been offended and continues to function today.

 Opposite Taş Han was a wooden police station, rebuilt before 1950 in stone and brick by the Association of Leather Manufacturers. After the police station were wooden sheds. The Fatih Hotel was constructed much later. Aya Paraskeva on the opposite side faced Müezzin Hasan Street—it wasn’t covered by the Arkadaş Coffee-shop then. No tanneries were yet built in Müezzin Hasan Street. At the entrance of Hadji Mehmet Street was the workplace of Salih Usta the Carpenter, with his house above. Among the habitués of Kazli who were born in this house were Metin and his brother Alaettin, who carried the goods of many Kazli factories to the marketplace. In Hadji Mehmet Pasha Street was a rented property of Mehmet Pasha; when my father and his associate purchased this place, about ten or fifteen families had been lodging there.

The front of the rented property was open, giving access down to the sea from the hill 20 or 30 meters in front of it. The present Salhane Street and Kotra Street had not yet been created in the 1950s. In front of and to the right of the property, beneath oar-level, the seawater was deep blue where people entered the sea. From there, sweet water, like sweetened fruit juice, came to the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha Mosque. whose fountains supplied drinking water with a gurgling sound.

There was a square on the intersection of Müezzin Hasan ve Mosque Şerif. At the site of the present Sezai and Sabahattin Gülsever brothers was a wooden house, and just on the opposite corner was the fishermen’s coffee-shop. On the hill behind the coffee-shop customs officials worked. People went down to the sea by the side of this hut. Boats were pulled onto the sandy beach. Near Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Mosque, at the position of the present Rıza Pedük Factory, was a boathouse where boats were repaired and rowing boats could be protected when the sea was turbulent. In the direction of the fountain square of Camii Şerif Street were the stone-made houses of Greeks who earned their livelihood by fishing. Fifty years ago, the shores of Kazli were not yet polluted [really?—SJ]; an abundance of sea bass, mackerel, lobster, and hermit crab was to be caught. Tasula’s children Koço and Lambo used to go fishing early in the morning, putting their catch into willow-branch baskets and bringing it before Patronlar Kahvesi Tevfik to put on sale. When fish became scarce at Kazli, the famous fisherman Karaçivi and his son Panayot came over to our stout leather factory.

Among the cartwrights of Kazlıçeşme there were famous figures such as the theatre actors Naşit Ziya and Dümbüllü Halil, as well as İsmail Efendi, who made his fortune as a coachman. So that his stout leather wouldn’t get damaged, Fettah Koşar had his items carried in a coach until his death—how can one forget Fettah’s cart, drawn by white horses?

Also with roots in Kazli, our colleagues the leather tradesmen İsmail Ilgaz and Selahattin Ilgaz were born in houses next to the Kara Mustafa Mosque. Towards the fountain at Mosque Şerif, there were Greek houses on the site of the inn of Nusret Canayakın, Zeki Özzengin and Bakkalbasi. Right at the end, on the intersection of Öcal Street, we come to coffee-shop keeper Tevfik’s place, where tradesmen used to gather after the Guild Coffee-shop was shut down. In a sense it became the marketplace (stock exchange) of the leather tradesmen, where raw hides and stout leather were bought and sold. Fettah Koşar used to open the market and dictate the prices of stout leather, and lesser tradesmen would wait for his sales before adjusting their own prices. After business was completed in the mornings, backgammon parties and card-playing contests were held in the afternoons.

At the site of the gas station, opposite Tevfik’s, was the coffee-shop of Acem Dervisih, with tables and chairs placed around, surrounded by half-walls, with people drinking tea and coffee. This was the main stopover for workers and masters. At the back of the coffee-shop, opposite the police station, where Ergun Çelikoğlu now lives, resided Hüseyin the Charcoal Seller. Next to him lived Artin Usta the Cook, while Lambo the Fisherman lived above. Next to them was Koco Usta, the carpenter who made the best cupboards in Kazlıçeşme. Right next door was the workshop of Hasan Usta, then the best lathing master at Kazlıçeşme. Hasan Usta always shaved his head with a razor, walking the streets bald-headed; he had weird ideas, but he was a good master. Bachelor workers used to inhabit the three-storey wooden house on the site of the present premises of Türkiye İs Bank.

At the site of the Eren Depot, reached by following Demirhane Avenue up from Kazli cemetery, was a vegetable garden with a wood. At the site of the present leather tradesman Nezir or Caglar’ın yerinde was the pickaxe- and spade-factory belonging to Hanris. What remains from this factory is a stone wall, stretching all the way along. Further on, in Semsiye Street, were summerhouses and houses overlooking the sea. Kazli’s backer Rahmi Bey and İsmail Efendi the Grocer used to live in this street. The area from here up to Gemalmaz Street, and the places opposite it where Derby Lastik, Kadir Safak ve Hayriş dye-houses are found, were just empty fields belonging to Kör Sıddık the Coachman. Kör Sıddık used to live at the house at the beginning of Gemalmaz Street. Ali Rıza Efendi the Butcher, father of yogurt-maker Halik Efendi, the father of Ergun Celikoğlu, is said to have resided further on. Our colleague Celikoğlu was also born at Kazlıçeşme—his mother still lives here.

The editors supplement this fascinating account with further notes on the locations and characters listed.

127

The oldest tanner the researchers found was Nurettin Keskiniz, whose rather more technical account describes the transformation of the business:

I was born in Yugoslavia in about 1900. Both my grandfather Musa Usta, whom I remember, and my father Ahmet Usta were tanners as well. My grandfather migrated from Leskovca to Kumanovo during [the 18]93 war and practiced tannery there. After the Balkan War they became emigrants for a second time and moved to Skopje. When I was 8 years old, while I was attending the district school, I was going to the tannery. During my holiday periods, I was doing tannery work. This means I’ve been going to the tannery for seventy-six years now; that’s how long I’ve been inhaling the smell. It’s a blessing for us. To some extent, my tanner guests and friends, who’ve been visiting over the last decade since I’ve had problems with my legs and feet, bring me that smell. All tanners carry it with them and exude it.

In 1935, when we immigrated here, Turkey was a poor country, where the rate of unemployment was very high. Production of vileda at Kazlıçeşme was too backward , and there were [only] five or six factories producing it. Because we had come from Yugoslavia as free immigrants, we had brought high-quality vileda and rubber heels with us. I had the chance of selling even these high-quality items. Mahmut Bey had not yet immigrated. Worried about the market conditions of the period, I wrote to him, “Do not disrupt your system. Things are not moving smoothly here. I will return as soon as possible.” He replied, “Assume that I have not read your letter. Drop your plans of returning here. Continue to work at all costs.” Mahmut Bey was a very experienced and far-sighted man who managed to serve as a member of parliament in Yugoslavia. He was older than me. After less than a year, he also migrated with his family to lend me a helping hand. This letter incident was instructive. A few years later, there was a coup in Yugoslavia and the Communist regime was established there.

When we arrived in Turkey, the first thing we did was to rent a shop at Kapalıçarşı, Perdahçılar Avenue. We tried to create capital by selling the goods we brought from Yugoslavia. One year later, we started to dye the tanned leather that we obtained from Anatolia, on the second floor of an inn in the Kapalıçarşı Örücüler (Weavers) Market. At one point we returned to tanning and the business went well. In the meantime, I had been going to Kazlıçeşme, the centre of the leather industry. There I talked with the tanners and did some shopping. I saw that in order to continue in the tannery business, it would be necessary to settle there.

We first rented and then bought the factory building in Çapraz Street from Rahmi Gezer, who was regarded as the mobile bank of Kazlıçeşme and who extended interest-free financial assistance to tanners. When I came to Kazlıçeşme in 1937, there was a small number of Turkish tanneries here: Rasim Gürel, Ahmet İşbilen, the Çengiç brothers, Saraç Hüseyin, Fettah Koşar, Mustafa Kantarlı, İhsan Sarı’s father. Except for the Çengiçs, all of them processed raw leather. They didn’t know about chromium tanning. But we had learned how to do it while in Yugoslavia. We had been producing chromium undercoating material and chromium Moroccan leather. In a sense, we may be regarded as one of the first appliers of chromium tanning in Turkey. Afterwards, the late Tahir Öztemir, father of Cezmi Öztemir, started to process chromium vileda together with Spitzer, one of the German masters. State Railways put out to tender a project for removing fabric-covered train seats and covering them with leather, which was more durable and clean. Luckily, we won the tender and were given the work of covering all the train seats with red and green chromium Moroccan leather.

We thus proved our talents in chromium tanning. In 1944, patent leather was in demand, but only Alecos Dulo’s firm had been processing it. Because we had been processing chromium leather, we transferred Panayot Sani, the master at Alecos Dulo, and began to process patent leather. For us, the most enjoyable years in tanning were the ones spent with the sale of patent leather. In order to buy one reel, the customers used to make a deposit and form queues to buy the goods. Panayot Sani came over and made things difficult for us. In the meantime, Hasan Yelmen began practicing tanning as a chemical engineer. Patent leather was prepared by boiling linseed oil. The first thing we asked Hasan Yelmen to teach us was how to bake patent leather, to rid us of the hegemony of Panayot Sani; after a short while, we succeeded and freed ourselves from him.

Over the following years, production of stout leather increased rapidly and the golden age began. Along with this increase, the number of tanners at Kazlıçeşme went up too. I don’t know who should come first, but I wish to commemorate my friends with this list, most of whom have passed away: [24 names]. These friends of mine used to deal with stout leather production. Among those who used to work in chromium tanning were: [19 names]. These characters sum up the Kazlıçeşme of the 1940s.

Forty years have passed, and we are now in the year 1984. The outlook of Kazlıçeşme has changed almost totally. Some old firms are now represented by their offspring. What I mean by the outlook changing is that there are now more newcomers than seniors. During this transfer, this outlook will be subject to change once more. If God permits us to live longer, I think no-one from the older generation will remain.

117Later we went into partnership with Hasan Yelmen and worked together for thirty years as Nurettin Keskiniz & Hasan Yelmen Co. When Hasan Yelmen stepped in, Panayot Sani, who had been making patent leather, moved back to his place. In those days, we could do chromium baking with the double-bath technique. But Hasan Yelmen managed to obtain better results by applying single-bath chromium baking. After he stepped in, we began to process chromium leather from sheep, designed for jackets. Thus it was we who first launched in Turkey the production of leather for jackets, which is in great demand today and which brings two hundred million USD of foreign earnings to Turkey. This is an important historical account. A Belarusian master tailor named Timochenko began to collect chromium sheepskin from us and sew leather jackets. When making chromium Moroccan leather for the railways, we had been highly skilled in the application of cellulose dye. The jacket material kept people warm, so it was in demand in the winter. Also, thanks to its cellulose finishing, it was water- and rain-proof. After learning how to sew leather jackets while working for Timochenko, Sabri Aykaç and Selahattin Tuncer left the Belarusian tailor. We supported them by providing them with jacket material on credit. Afterwards, Dona da Leon also began to sew leather jackets.

First, drivers and police officers began to wear leather jackets. The centre was established at Karaköy. In particular, the crews of the steamers that docked at the Galata quay were the first serious customers. Later, State Railways awarded the contract for purchasing leather jackets for its staff, and numerous workshops were opened at Karaköy and Mercan for the purpose. Shops were opened at Beyoğlu, where finer leather jackets were sold and this business spread among the people. Then women started wearing leather jackets, coats, and skirts, which constituted the third phase. In the fourth phase we exported leather jackets to foreign countries.

Undoubtedly the most important phase began with the entry of Derimod into leather fashion. Ümit Zaim is part of our family circle because he is the grandson of my partner Mahmut Bey, and the cousin of Hasan Yelmen. I can say that it was we who developed the leather-jacket business, and that Ümit Zaim took it to its peak. I trained many staff, both workmen and masters. Some of those we trained became bosses at Kazlıçeşme: Faik Altıer was one of our masters back in Skopje. After coming to Turkey, Rıza, Halil, Münür Altıer too worked for us. Zekeriya Tabakçı had worked for us in Skopje. Sadettin Toprak and Halil Öztürk were our patent-leather masters. Emin Sez made travels for us. Rıza Pedük worked in the emery-stone trade. I was happy to see all of them becoming bosses.

What a bustling subaltern society these vivid recollections evoke, hinting at the variety of trades centred around the tanning industry—factories, slaughterhouses, glue workshops; carpenters, cartwrights, blacksmiths, charcoal sellers; landlords, rowdies; cooks, fishermen, police posts, steamers, the railways; ambient venues like lodging houses, baths, mosques, coffee-houses, inns, vegetable gardens… 


[1] In recent years, Zeytinburnu has become home to increasing numbers of Uyghurs fleeing persecution in Xinjiang (see e.g. here, and here). Rachel Harris’s studies of the expressive culture of the Uyghurs have expanded to their life in exile there.

The struggle for Turkey: a revolutionary female journalist

Sertels 1930s

In Midnight at the Pera Palace Charles King introduces some progressive figures in Republican Turkey such as Halide Edip and Nâzım Hikmet. Now I’ve been reading about Sabiha Sertel (1895–1968), whose autobiography

  • The struggle for modern Turkey: justice, activism, and a revolutionary female journalist (1968; English translation 2019), tells of her eventful life before she went into exile in 1950 (see website).

Written in exile in Soviet Azerbaijan, with inevitable self-censorship, it’s ably translated by David Selim Sayers and Evrim Emir-Sayers, and edited by Sabiha’s granddaughter Tia O’Brien and great-niece Nur Deris Ottoman, with helpful annotations.

Sabiha Nazmi was born in Salonica to a Dönme family, a community of Jewish origin that had long converted to Islam. In 1913, following the loss of the city to the Greek army, she moved with her family to Constantinople, “a city lost amidst the ruins of a shattered empire”.

In 1915 she married outside her Dönme ancestry to Zekeriya Sertel. While identifying with the new nationalist, secularist agenda, they would soon take issue with the new regime. As they founded the magazine Büyük Mecmua, their house became a meeting place for progressive thinkers.

Even in her Salonica childhood, Sabiha had gleaned clues that inclined her towards feminism. By now, as she wrote,

The war had also changed the lives of women. The country’s economic collapse had drawn them into public life, despite all resistance by supporters of sharia law. Women were beginning to act in ways that went against traditional norms. A small number had even started working—for the state, commercial firms, and factories. Women wanted to show that they, too, were strong and smart enough to cope with the struggles of life.

She describes the debate over women’s education; despite the arguments of reactionaries (“ridiculous and pathetic in equal measure”), it was ruled that men and women should be allowed to study together at university.

Zekeriya was imprisoned for the first time after the Greek occupation of Smyrna/Izmir in 1919. Sabiha took over the licence of the magazine, under scrutiny from the British censors. She describes her first meeting with Halide Edip:

That same day, I went to the notary’s office and finalised the transfer of the licence. Later, when I was working in the study, the doorbell rang. It was a short, slender woman dressed in a black çarşaf.
“Who would you like to see?” I asked.
“I am Halide Edip”, she answered.
I was stunned—I’d never met her before. She’d been writing for the journal, attending the secret meetings at our house and even presiding over them. I was not allowed to attend those meetings. Still, I’d been an avid reader of Halide Hanim’s novels since my childhood and was thrilled to find her in front of me like this. I asked her in. She entered and removed the top part of her çarşaf.
“How is Zekeriya?” she asked.
“I went to see him today; he’s fine.”
She asked me whom else I’d seen in Bekirağa Prison. I told her.
“What happens to the journal now?” she asked.
“I’ll publish it myself. I’m taking over the licence.”
Halide Hanim looked me up and down. “You’re just a child,” she said at last.
“I’ll grow up eventually.”
That made her smile. She asked what we were doing for the Izmir issue, and I told her about it.
“I can write your editorials if you want,” she said, adding that she’d send me an interview on the Izmir occupation.
On her way out, she said, “Tomorrow, we’ll hold a protest rally in Sultan Ahmet against the occupation of Izmir. Come along.”

After Halide’s rousing speech at the rally, she

had become a different person. She no longer entreated the sultan, sought refuge with the Entente powers, or talked about an American mandate.

As Zekeriya was released from prison, they formed a secret cell to support Mustafa Kemal’s campaign in Anatolia. Despite her opposition to the çarşaf, Sabiha discovered its usefulness when concealing letters between Halide and the National Assembly. But censorship forced the magazine to close.

In the USA
A new Turkish intelligentsia now had to be with modern learning. In November 1919, with the help of Halide Edip, the Sertels, now with a young daughter, gained scholarships to study at Columbia University in New York—at a time when Franz Boas and his students there were revolutionising the study of anthropology.

(In the right-hand photo, Sabiha is actually first on the left)

In New York Sabiha was acutely aware of the divide between rich and poor. Studying sociology, she learned to theorise ethnic and religious conflicts, as well as gender and class. She applied such learning in an immigrant neighbourhood at the New York School of Social Work, encountering poor workers. But finding that the school’s purpose was “to restrict the activities of labour and stifle any emerging workers’ movements or revolutionary tendencies”, she became sceptical of welfare organisations.

They’d come from Europe expecting an El Dorado, braving the oceans with their families in the hope of getting rich. But America had turned them into slaves; they worked at factories day and night, barely making enough to buy food. They didn’t speak the language and had no technical skills, so they were given the hardest jobs. Their labour was exploited ruthlessly. Women and men, children and elders—they were like mules at a mill, endlessly turning the wheel. […]

They worked in gardens of Eden but never touched the fruit. There was no way out. There was no way back.

Sabiha NY 1919

She needed to overcome obstacles in becoming involved with the poor Turkish community there. Acquaintances advised her:

“You couldn’t even get through the door of that coffee house. You’d be an alien to them. They don’t like intellectuals; they’re from Anatolia, from the villages. It’s even worse that you’re a woman; they’ll never tolerate a woman mixing with men. This isn’t a regular New York coffee house we’re talking about. And there’s so much cigarette smoke in there, you won’t even be able to see what’s in front of you.”

As she received letters from Turkey describing the hunger and misery back in Anatolia, she made contact with Turkish immigrant workers, eventually winning them over to labour organisation and support for the homeland. She conducted a survey including other US cities; as word spread, she visited Detroit, where it was no easy task to organise Kurdish workers toiling in the Ford automobile factory, gingerly negotiating a path through their antagonism with the Turks. She organised fundraisers for the cause in Turkey. When she returned to the USA in 1937 to visit her daughter, she found that her initiative had born fruit.

Return to the new Republic
Now with a second daughter Yıldız, the Sertels returned to Turkey in July 1923 on the eve of the proclamation of the Republic—a time when debate was wide-ranging, over topics such as the constitution, the secular-religious balance, and women’s rights. Sabiha had an offer of working for the Society for the Protection of Children. But

We didn’t know what to do with our lives. I wanted to move to a village and found a community organisation, but like any dreamy socialist, I had no idea how to do this. Like all youngster fresh out of college, I was living in a fantasy world. All I knew was that I wanted to be useful to the newly emerging Turkey.

Zekeriya was soon appointed to the Directorate General of the Press in Ankara.

This put to an end my dream of moving to a village and working among the peasants.

Still, when she followed him to Ankara, she found that the new capital was itself little more than a village.

Ankara was simply one of the countless Anatolian towns that had been neglected since Ottoman times. My train had passed through many villages and hamlets after leaving Haydarpaşa station in Istanbul, and in all of them, I’d encountered the same sight. Wherever we stopped, children with bare feet and torn trousers approached the train, begging for newspapers, cigarettes, a single cent. Village women tilled the soil in the burning sun, their faces scorched and wrinkled despite their young age. It was in their villages that I’d wanted to work. […]

It was time to say farewell to my dreams.

Sabiha broadly supported Atatürk’s agenda, but found him “surrounded by reactionaries, conservatives, and liberals”. She now designed a social survey project (“in order to cure an illness, one must first know what the illness is”), but it was soon blocked. With Zekeriya she returned to Istanbul.

I had returned from America with fanciful dreams. I had prepared to work for the good of the people in the heart of Anatolia. But now, the dream was over and reality showed us its true face. Zekeriya told me he would return to journalism, his true profession, and proposed that I work with him. This meant abandoning my own vocation. But what could I achieve in that field anyway? Teach sociology at a school? I wanted to work in a broader setting, grapple with social issues and disseminate my learning and ideas. Journalism seemed a suitable outlet for this.

Resimli Ay

In 1924 the Sertels founded the magazine Resimli Ay (Illustrated monthly), conveying progressive ideas to ordinary readers in an accessible and engaging style, aiming “to raise the people’s cultural level”. But repression intensified, and along with other progressive journalists, the Sertels were often taken to court.

From 1928, when Nâzım Hikmet returned from Moscow, he became a regular contributor to Resimli Ay, influencing a young generation of writers. Among his protégés was the novelist Sabahaddin Ali. The magazine defended workers’ rights and highlighted peasants’ issues. Sabiha devotes a lengthy section to a trial in 1930, at which her vigorous defence resulted in the prosecution’s case being dismissed on appeal.

The circle continued debating literature and socialism. Still, Sabiha reflects: “At the time, I’m sorry to say, socialist thought in Turkey was little more than romanticism.”

Under continuing police surveillance, Resimli Ay was forced to close down early in 1931. Certain press freedoms came into operation in the 1930s, and with more time on her hands, Sabiha translated several works on socialism (this study focuses on her work as translator). Zekeriya spent another period in prison, again leaving Sabiha to continue the struggle.

Besides the internal dynamics of Turkish society, with their anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist stance a significant part of the Sertels’ energies was devoted to opposing foreign domination. But as David Selim Sayers’ lucid Introduction comments,

The internal and external threat perception of Turkey’s ruling elites helped them justify a very loose attitude—to put it kindly—towards democratic values.

From 1936 to 1945 the Sertels ran the daily newspaper Tan, continuing to argue for democracy and human rights, and struggling to oppose single-party authoritarianism—which only increased after Atatürk’s death in 1938.

In 1937, before visiting the USA to see her older daughter Sevim, Sabiha held discussions in Paris on the ominous international situation. After World War Two broke out, at a 1940 trial to vilify the poet Tevfik Fikret—twenty-four years after his death—Sabiha herself came under attack for defending him. She was forced into silence several times.

Though she described the Wealth tax of 1942 as carrying “the stench of fascism”, she seems to miss the point that its main purpose was to discriminate against non-Muslim citizens of the Republic.

Among the controversial literary figures whom the Sertels championed, Nâzım Hikmet was incarcerated from 1938 until he was released to Soviet exile in 1950, and Sabahaddin Ali was assassinated in 1948.

The postwar period
After the end of World War Two, the Turkish press “stopped defending fascist Germany and jumped on the Allied bandwagon”. But the Sertels soon found that the new stirring of democracy was only a figleaf. As Sayers explains,

Leftist thinkers and activists like Serkel, who had been persecuted for opposing Nazism and the far right during the war, were now subjected to a new round of persecution for refusing to endorse the political and economic objectives of NATO and the USA.

Tan riot 1946

On 4th December 1945 the Tan printing house was demolished by a government-instigated mob and the Sertels were put on trial yet again. Though their appeal was successful, they were under ever greater surveillance. In 1946 they were arrested. At yet another high-profile trial they were sentenced, but soon released. While in prison, Sabiha continued to conduct social research among her fellow inmates.

1946 trial

The Human Rights Association was briefly launched before being suppressed. Unable to work, the Sertels’ position in Turkey was untenable.

After all our years of struggle, we’d run out of ways to defend the nation’s and people’s cause. We’d run out of ways to speak out for peace and fight for our ideals. We were exiled in our own homeland. Our days were barren and empty; our lives were without purpose.

In September 1950 they boarded a plane for Paris. There Sabiha’s account ends.

* * *

I’m curious about the Sertels’ life after going into exile—much of which they spent in the GDR and then Soviet Azerbaijan. In 1958 they started a secret radio collaboration with Nâzım Hikmet, broadcasting from Leipzig. When Zekeriya was dismissed in 1962, he relocated to Baku, where Sabiha joined him the following year. Soon afterwards their passports were confiscated. Following Sabiha’s death in 1969, Zekeriya and Yıldız defected to Paris in 1969.

The enthusiasm for the USSR of many leftist supporters abroad was largely untrammelled by knowledge of the actual situation there. Once they lived there, the Sertels must have sensed the people’s extreme wariness; as Orlando Figes describes,

The system taught dissimulation, producing duplicity and lifelong fear. As a survival strategy, people learned to wear a mask, going into “internal emigration”, leading double lives; they had to adjust to the system merely in order to survive. They learned not to talk: “whisperers” were both those who whispered out of fear of being overheard, and those who informed.

I wonder how much they knew of the appalling abuses taking place, either within the USSR or with the Soviet repressions of uprisings in the GDR (1953), Hungary (1956), and Prague (1968, shortly before Sabiha’s death)—just the kind of popular movements to which they had devoted their energies in Turkey. But Sabiha must have reflected privately on having to keep her strong opinions about press freedoms to herself. *

At least she didn’t have to agonise over the tragedy of Ukraine today, or the silencing of dissent within Russia; nor, indeed, did she have to confront cases of state repression within Turkey since 2005, with charges of “insulting Turkishness”, the murder of Hrant Dink, and the Gezi Park protests. But that’s rather like wondering how Lu Xun would have reacted to Tiananmen or the genocide in Xinjiang.

For all her jargon of “reactionaries” and “imperialists”, Sabiha Sertel analyses Turkey’s political malaise acutely, constantly advocating on behalf of the most disadvantaged parts of the population, and championing free speech. Among her blind spots are the complexities of Turkey’s ethnic composition: she barely mentions her own Dönme ancestry, and gives little consideration to the plight of Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds, who continued to be repressed under the Republic. Her take on religion is unreservedly negative. But all this hardly diminishes the value of her valiant struggles within Turkey—where many of the dynamics that she confronted remain today.


* See also posts under Life behind the Iron Curtain. Some time in the mid-1950s, Zekeriya and his younger daughter Yıldız spent two months on a visit to the People’s Republic of China, touring both urban and rural areas. Zekeriya seems to have been becoming disenchanted with the USSR, but in his apparent enthusiasm for the revolution in China he may have glossed over the Party’s increasingly draconian control over people’s lives there too. “More on that story later”, I hope…

La voix humaine

BH LVH

Back home from Istanbul, my ears still buzzing with Bektashi–Alevi ritual and the call to prayer, I went along to the Barbican to be astounded yet again at the innovative genius of Barbara Hannigan with the LSO (programme notes here).

They opened with Richard Strauss’s searing Metamorphosen, composed at the end of World War Two—all the more moving on a day when war came to Europe again. Dispensing with Denis Guéguin’s pre-recorded video montage (shown in the 2021 concert below), Ms Hannigan left the hushed lower strings to open the piece by themselves—an effective device (cf. Noddy and Hector). It’s a threnody that deserves to be the intense focus of any programme, yet tends to suffer as a kind of overture.

After barely a pause to reset the stage, Hannigan’s brief, mind-bending spoken introduction on screen prepares us for Francis Poulenc’s “brief and devastating” tragédie-lyrique opera La voix humaine (1958), in which she embodies the abandoned and distraught “Elle” on the phone to her former lover.

This is the latest of several versions she has been working on since 2015; through Clemens Malinowski’s live video projection (subtitled in English) we find Elle caught in her own fantasy, directing the orchestra. Following on from her signature incarnation of Lulu, Hannigan observes:

Elle has been a significant role for me as my career has evolved, and we now see an Elle who sings, an Elle who conducts. The theme of transformation runs throughout the programme on many levels, as we confront issues such as ageing, deterioration, decadence, loss, and disintegration. I had always thought that Elle’s forays into fantasy, delusion, and control made La voix humaine a highly possible sing-conduct performance.

Poulenc completed the opera soon after Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmélites. Based on the 1928 play by Cocteau, it was composed for Denise Duval *—Poulenc worked closely with them both on the piece.

Duval Voix

Here’s Duval in a 1970 film of the opera, using her 1959 audio recording (first of four parts):

Barbara Hannigan is the most mesmerising physical presence on stage. As she sings she cues the orchestra with demented nodding, pummelling them with clenched fists—a far cry from the austere male maestros of yesteryear. Though some reviewers (e.g. here and here) found the interpretation narcissistic, her standing ovation was well deserved.

This is her 2021 performance of the programme with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France:


* Although Poulenc wrote the opera for Duval, Jessica Duchen’s programme notes cite a drôle story about Callas, the ultimate diva:

Another spur for the piece may have been an incident at La Scala, Milan, when, at a performance with some friends in January 1956, Poulenc watched Maria Callas taking a curtain call. He recalled: “As the last notes faded beneath thunderous applause, Callas violently pushed the splendid Mario [del Monaco] into the corner of the wings and advanced by herself into the middle of the stage. At which point one of my dear friends, my publisher [Henri Dugardin], who was sitting next to me, said: “You should write an opera just for her—that way, she wouldn’t be such a nuisance.”

Spirit mediums in China: collected posts

Houshan medium

Spirit medium for the deity Houtu, Houshan temple fair 1993. My photo.

In a post on gender in Chinese religious life I suggested a bold, nay revolutionary, idea:

I wonder how long it might take for us to totally reverse our perspectives on “doing religion” in China—privileging oral, largely non-literate practices and relegating elite discourse (including the whole vast repository of early canonical texts) and temple-dwelling clerics to a subsidiary place?!

In contrast to the more literate manifestations of religious practice in China that dominate sinology, spirit mediums also play an important role in local society (note the useful bibliographies of Philip Clart and Barend ter Haar). The gender ratio varies by region, but in many areas female mediums dominate, serving not only as healers but as protagonists in religious life; for women in particular, becoming a medium gives them a social status that is otherwise unavailable. Their tutelary deities may be either male or female.

me-mot

Me-mot mediums in Guangxi. Photo: Xiao Mei.

This is to draw your attention to a new “mediums” tag in the sidebar. The main posts include

  • Lives of female mediums, introducing studies on Guangxi (XIao Mei) and Wenzhou (Mayfair Yang)—as well as our own work around Hebei and north Shanxi, on which I reflect further in the second post of my series on
  • Women of Yanggao.

And I’ve introduced studies on activity in

as well as

  • the self-mortifying mediums of Amdo (here, and in note here).

Under Maoism, whereas public forms of religious life were vulnerable to political campaigns, the more clandestine activities of mediums were tenacious—indeed, the social and psychological crises of the era ensured that they continued to emerge (see e.g. the work of Ng and Chau above). Still, distribution is patchy; in this post I discussed the decline in Gaoluo village.

For the rituals of mediums in Korea, see here and here.

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 2: Anatolia

 

Cler sema
Alevi cem ritual, Tohal.

Further to my post on Bektashi and Alevi practice in Istanbul, Alevi ritual groups are widespread throughout rural Anatolia. As an instance, I’ve continued to admire Jérôme Cler‘s fieldwork there.

In 2003 he documented Alevi cem rituals in hill villages of Tohal in the region of Tokat, eastern Anatolia. Here’s a more extended sequence of the second video in his post:

Cler’s research in the hill villages of the southwest also extends to some fine documentation of the annual cem ritual (birlik) in the Alevi village of Tekke Köyü, sacred site of Abdal Musa, who was among the founding saints of the Bektashi, a disciple of the 13th-century sage Haji Bektash Veli.

When the diligent observer Evliya Çelebi visited the village in the 17th century, the inhabitants served the three hundred celibate mücerret dervishes of the lodge there, feeding visiting pilgrims with cauldrons stoked throughout the year.

Cler birlik

Despite later reverses, Abdal Musa still attracts pilgrims today, and the confraternity still performs regular cem rituals, led by güvende ritual specialists and bards. Cler gives a detailed presentation in this article, and on his site (with short video examples). The segments of the ritual sequence run as follows:

  • Opening:

initial hymn to the Twelve Imams
babalar semah (semah of the baba)

  • sofra (meal):

dem nefesi
oturak nefesleri (seated songs that Cler likens to Byzantine kathisma)
Kerbelâ song

  • End of the sofra and departure of the assembly:

semah of Forty;
two or four “additional” semah (these semah cannot be danced if the cem is to be finished early, as is often the case when spring approaches and brings the first agricultural work);
gözcü semah (semah of the gözcü!);
lokma
(new agape meal), hand washing and taking leave of services.

Here’s Cler’s CD Turquie: cérémonie de djem bektashi, la tradition d’Abdal Musa (Ocora, 2012) as a playlist:

For more bibliography, see my first post.

Manuscripts of Timbuktu

 

Timbuktu cover

I’ve been fascinated to read

  • Charlie English, The book smugglers of Timbuktu (2017)
    (reviewed e.g. by William Dalrymple).

Timbuktu map

Over many centuries, Timbuktu became home to a vast treasury of early manuscripts on history, art, medicine, philosophy, and science (for databases, see e.g. here, here, and here).

Charlie English uses the dramatic device of alternating chapters on the early history of European expeditions from 1788 with the remarkable efforts since 2012 undertaken by the town’s librarians to rescue the manuscripts from destruction by the jihadi onslaught.

He cites Bruce Chatwin’s famous comment that there are two Timbuktus: “one the real place, a tired caravan town where the Niger bends into the Sahara”, another “altogether more fabulous, a legendary city in a never-never land, the Timbuktu of the mind”.  As the book adroitly blends the two, accounts of the rescue became a further chapter in the town’s history of myth-making.

The main theme of early European explorations is Death or Glory. After a succession of intrepid adventurers had met grisly fates in trying to reach Timbuktu, Alexander Gordon Laing became the first to succeed in 1826—undeterred by sustaining [yup, that’s the word] horrific injuries en route. * After all the hype, those who did manage to reach the town were inevitably disappointed. As René Chaillié reported in 1828:

The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth. Nothing was to be seen in all direction but immense plains of quicksand of a yellowish white colour. The sky was a pale red as far as the horizon; all nature wore a dreary aspect, and the most profound silence prevailed; not even the warbling of a bird was to be heard.

The buildings were unimpressive, mostly consisting of a single storey. The town had no walls, and wasn’t nearly as big or busy as he had been led to believe. The atmosphere was soporific.

By the 1880s Timbuktu had become a prize in European imperialist goals of military domination. In “King Leopold’s paperweight”, English spells out the racism at the heart of the age of colonial exploitation—an entrenched, widespread mindset that anthropologists like Franz Boas were still having to challenge in the mid-20th century. As the town went into further decline, Félix Dubois kept the image of its precious manuscripts alive.

By the early 20th century, the myth of a wealthy Timbuktu with golden roofs had long been jettisoned, but it had been replaced by the idea of the city as an enlightned university town where orchestras entertained emperors and astronomers plotted the tracks of comets even as Europeans struggled out of the Dark Ages. There was more substance to this myth than the old one, but it was still a gross exaggeration, a story written to fit the new requirement for exoticism. Timbuktu, it seemed, reflected to each of the travellers who reached it something of what they wanted to find. The romantic Laing had discovered his vainglorious end. Caillié, the humble adventurer, had found a humble town. Barth, the scientist, had unearthed a wealth of new information. Dubois, the journalist, had landed his world exclusive, uncovering the region’s secret past.

* * *

shrine
Source.

In 2012, as rival factions of jihadists took control of Timbuktu, trashing offices, levelling Sufi shrines, and implementing sharia law, the town’s librarians began smuggling manuscripts out to Bamako with the help of local families—a story that English tells in compelling detail. International bodies responded exceptionally promptly with major funding. Meanwhile the librarians themselves were concerned to keep the delicate operation out of the public eye, for fear of attracting attention from the jihadists.

Timbuktu MSS

Source.

Diakité evoked the salvage operation:

Housewives offered food and shelter to our couriers along the route.Merchants transported couriers and footlockers of books without charge, when they saw our people pushing them in pushcarts or carrying them on their backs to get them to the safety of the river. […] Whole villages created diversions at checkpoints, so our couriers could get them through with their books. In all cases, in the north but also in the south, the community came forward in the name of safeguarding the manuscripts. […] They called them our heritage, our manuscripts.

Among the librarians the main characters are Abdel Kader Haidara, who had long been working on collecting the manuscripts, and now made a “Terrible Twosome” with the well-connected American conservator Stephanie Diakité; Ismael Diadié Haidara, proprietor of the Fondo Kati library; and Abdoulkadri Idrissa Maiga, director of the Ahmed Baba Institute.

The town was liberated by French troops in 2013, but the situation in north Mali has remained unstable.

Indeed, scholars such as John Hunwick had been paying attention to the manuscripts by 1967, and conservation projects were already under way from 1977, supported by international bodies such as UNESCO, the Ford Foundation, and the Prince Claus Fund. As the enormity of the documents spread around the town and nearby became apparent, it overturned assumptions that Africa had no written history. By 1999, when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates made a PBS film on the collection (“as a black American, I know what it’s like to have your history stolen from you”), the Timbuktu treasures were widely celebrated.

In a most astute chapter on “the myth factory”, English unpacks the diverse accounts of the manuscripts’ hectic evacuation. Dissenting voices were heard, such as Bruce Hall, professor at Duke University, who found the claimed numbers of manuscripts, and their value, much inflated. Conflicting stories of the crisis inevitably emerged. As Haidara told the author enigmatically,

There is not only one account of the evacuation. Each person will have his own take on it. Bruce [Hall] will have one account, Ismael another, Maiga yet another, while I have my own version. All these accounts will be different, but they will all be true. If everyone agreed what the story was, then it would certainly not be true.

English opens the Epilogue with a comment that may apply widely:

This book is as much historiography as history. That is to say, it is an account of the interpretations of Timbuktu’s past at least as much as it is the story of what actually happened there. The reasons for this, I hope, will have become clear: Timbuktu’s story is in perpetual motion, swinging back and forth between competing poles of myth and reality. Spectacular arguments are made and then dismissed before another claim is built up, in an apparently continuous cycle of proposition and correction.

He goes on:

With such resonant, universal themes of good versus evil, books versus guns, fanatics versus moderates, this modern-day folktale proved irresistible. It was all the more powerful for being built around a kernel of truth, just as the more glorious accounts of the city’s past were.

* * *

After Gates’s 1999 film, by 2009 several documentaries had already appeared, including The lost libraries of Timbuktu from the BBC:

Note also English’s 2014 article on the status of women in Timbuktu.

His book was just pipped to the post by Charlie Hammer, The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu (2016) (hmm—cf. “10 Kickass Female Composers”, and my own forthcoming bestseller The bad-ass household Daoists of Shanxi).

The music of Mali—where the oral traditions of the jeli (griot) bards make another major repository of history—has become a mainstay of the World Music scene, dominating publications such as Songlines. See Lucy Durán’s introduction in The Rough Guide to world music; and as part of the splendid Growing into Music project, she made this fine film around southern Mali on the eve of the jihadi invasion in the north:

Political angles are explored by Andy Morgan in Music, culture, and conflict in Mali (2013); for updates, see e.g. here and here.


* As Laing reported,

To begin from the top, I have five sabre cuts on the crown of the head & three on the left temple, all fractures from which much bone has come away, one on my left cheek which fractured the jaw bone & has divided the ear, forming a very unsightly wound, one over the right temple, and a dreadful gash on the back of the neck, which slightly scratched the windpipe.

English goes on:

He has a musket ball in the hip, which has made its way through his body, grazing his backbone. He also has five saber wounds to his right arm and hand, which is “cut three fourths across”, and the wrist bones are hacked through. He has three cuts on his left arm, which is broken, one slight wound on the right leg, and two, including “one dreadful gash”, on the left, to say nothing of the blow to the fingers of the hand he is using to write.

But things got worse. After a “dreadful malady” kills off the other members of his mission, he writes magnificently:

“My situation is far from agreeable.”

(Chorus of “Young people today…”—backpackers moaning that they can’t even get a reliable internet connection… Cf. The ascent of Rum Doodle, and The four Yorkshiremen sketch.)

The Janissary tree

 

Janissary cover

As a fictional spinoff from my taste for Bektashi–Alevi rituals, Turkish crime thrillers are a substantial genre, for whose Ottoman branch I enjoyed

a most entertaining romp through late Ottoman history.

First in a series (gaily described by Marilyn Stasio as “a magic carpet ride to the most exotic place on earth”) starring Yashim the eunuch, the novel is set in 1836 Constantinople, ten years after the “Auspicious Event” that seemed to rid the empire of the overweening Janissaries:

Once the Ottoman Empire’s crack troops, the Janissaries had degenerated—or evolved, if you like—into an armed mafia, terrorising sultans, swaggering through the streets of Istanbul, rioting, fire-raising, thieving and extorting with impunity. Outgunned and outdrilled by the armies of the west, stubbornly they had clung to the traditions of their forefathers, contemptuous of innovation, despising the common soldiers of the enemy and rejecting every lesson the battlefield could teach, for fear of their grip loosening. For decades they had held the empire to ransom.

Yashim foils a plot threatening a vengeful revival, as he goes in search of mysterious, elusive tekke Sufi lodges. The cast features grisly ritual murders, harem plots, an Albanian soup-master, a transvestite entertainer, a Polish ambassador, fire-tower watchmen, and an archetypal Russian femme fatale.

The street scenes are evocative:

A troupe of jugglers and acrobats, six men and two women, took up a position near the cypress tree, squatting on their haunches, waiting for light and crowds. Between them they had set a big basket with a lid, and Murad Eslek spent a while watching them from a corner of the alley behind the city walls until he had seen that the basket really did contain bats, balls, and other paraphernalia of their trade. Then he moved on, eyeing up the other quacks and entertainers who had crowded in for the Friday market: the Kurdish story teller in a patchwork coat; the Bulgarian fire-eater, bald as an egg; a number of bands—Balkan pipers, Anatolian string players; a pair of sinuous and silent Africans, carefully dotting a blanket spread on the ground with charms and remedies; a row of gypsy silversmiths with tiny anvils and a supply of coins wrapped in pieces of soft leather, who were already at work, snipping the coins and beating out tiny rings and bracelets.

The climax comes with a splendidly tense cinematic scene in the tanneries.

The first thing Yashim noticed, after the stench he was forced to suck down into his heaving chest, was the light.

It rose from eery columns from the vats into which, across an area of several acres, the animal skins were lowered for boiling and dyeing. Against a forest of flickering torches, each vat threw out a spume of coloured vapour, red, yellow, and indigo blending and slowly dissolving into the darkness of the night air. The air stank of fat, and burned hair, and worst of all the overreaching odour of dog shit used to tan the leather. A vision of hell.

See also crime thrillers from China and Germany; Weimar Berlin, Stasi,Russia, and Hungary, and the Navajo.

 

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 1: Istanbul

Alevi cem 17
Sema
for Alevi cem ritual, Istanbul 2022.

In modern Turkey, a major component of the diverse Ottoman religious heritage is the ritual life of groups subsumed under the broad umbrella of Sufi dervish ritual—whose histories and evolution the dualistic language of Sunni and Shi’a is quite inadequate to encompass. [1]

Misleading taxonomies are common in world religions. With my experience of China, I think of  Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection Daoism (e.g. for Hunyuan); at folk level, even the terms “Buddhist” and “Daoist” may be problematic, such as in Hunan. And I’ll remark on further features that the Sufi groups seem to share with folk ritual practices in China.

A distinctive strand here is the practice of Bektashi and Alevi groups. [2] While I’m in Istanbul, haughtily eschewing the sanitised stage shows of “Whirling Dervishes”, commodified for tourists, I’m keen to attend a ritual. The devotional religious groups engage in activities with a certain discretion, so—quite properly—they don’t readily offer access to impertinent outsiders. But while they have also gone into partial lockdown since the pandemic, cem rituals are still being held.

I’m merely trying to get a very basic handle on this topic; perhaps my superficial foray below will suffice merely to show how immense it all is—so readers who actually know about it can look away now

* * *

In both their doctrines and ritual practices Bektashis and Alevis, now commonly associated, have indeed long had much in common. Both, for instance, worship Ali (son-in-law of Muhammad), the Twelve Imams, and the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli, and both emphasise the Four Gates and Forty Stations. They make an annual pilgrimage in August to the shrine of Haji Bektash Veli at Hacıbektaş in central Anatolia.

To simplify historical nuances of doctrine and terminology that elude me, Alevism is a general belief system with ascriptive identity, whereas Bektashi is an order in which one can enrol. Some scholars have distinguished rural Alevis and a more educated elite of urban Bektashis.

As Caroline Finkel observes in Osman’s dream,

The devotional practices of mosque-goers and dervish could be accommodated side by side in one building, and many mosques today associated with Sunni Islamic observance once had a wider function, as a refuge for dervishes as well as congregational prayer-hall.

In Ottoman times Bektashis were closely linked to the Janissaries; they went into decline after the latter were suppressed in the “Auspicious Incident” of 1826 (Osman’s dream, pp.437–8):

Prominent members of the order were executed, and Bektashi properties in Istanbul were destroyed, or confiscated and sold, or converted to other uses. […]

The practice of affiliation to more than one dervish order was so common, and the attempt to eradicate Bektashism at this time so vehement, that sheiks of other orders were also rounded up and sent into internal exile. Largely because of their infiltration into and acceptance by other orders, however, especially the officially-favoured Nakşibendi order—on whom their properties were bestowed—the Bektashi were able to survive clandestinely, and by mid-century they were again finding favour within elite circles.

Following World War One, despite the Bektashis’ supportive role in the War of Independence, Atatürk outlawed such Sufi groups in 1925; since then (by contrast with the recent commodification of the “Whirling Dervishes”) their ritual activities take place discreetly, since some Muslims still consider them heretical. The main base for the Bektashi sect is now in the Balkans and Thrace, notably Albania.

Although some Alevis claim to be Bektashi, the eliding of the two is quite recent. As our encyclopedic Kuzguncuk neighbour Kadir Filiz observes, the problematic term “Alevi–Bektashi” was coined by Mehmet Fuat Köprülü (1890–1966) in his work on Sufism; he also applied the labels “orthodox” and “heterodox” to Islam, recently deflated by scholars like Riza Yildirim (who encapsulates his detailed historical and field studies here and here; also in English, see e.g. here). By the late Ottoman era, as the militant, rebellious kızılbaş “red-heads” [3] were perceived negatively, popular parlance began replacing the term with “Alevi”; but under the new Republic, Alevism came to be associated with radical leftist views.

Lodges and houses of gathering
The situation became further politicised from the 1950s, when Alevis from rural areas of Anatolia began migrating in large numbers to major cities like Istanbul. There they used long-dormant Bektashi tekke lodges as cemevi (“houses of gathering”) [4] and formed local associations, named after their native region; since the 1980s the cemevi have been rented officially, and younger generations have come to refer to them as Alevi–Bektashi lodges. As both context and ritual practice have been modified, this has also been a period of an “Alevi renaissance”, reaffirming identity against the dominant culture of Sunni Islam.

The urban cemevi now have an ambiguous status. In modern Istanbul they often serve partly as social centres, but many rituals are also held in private homes; one dede leader told us that well over fifty cemevi are active there. [5]

State suspicion of the Alevis has been heightened by the presence of a significant Kurdish component among them, making them yet more vulnerable to attack—with serious incidents since the 1960s and 70s, such as massacres at Maraş (1978), Çorum (1980), and Sivas (1993), amidst tacit government connivance. While Alevis make up a substantial part of the Turkish population, at home they may be shunned by their neighbours, and at school children still have to keep quiet about their heritage.

The accuracy of the cherished notion of gender equality has recently been challenged by Alevi women.

Ritual practice
Along with migration, ritual change has become a major research topic (see Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, Chapter 7; for China, see e.g. Guo Yuhua, and north Shanxi).

Alevi studies are thriving too. Alongside the insights of Riza Yildirim (see above), I note works such as

See also e.g.

Such studies lead to a wealth of further research, both historical and ethnographic. [6] Meeting practitioners in Istanbul, I’m also reminded of how much material (including audio and video recordings) is shared online by such groups, who maintain regular contacts with their fellow-believers around Anatolia and Thrace.

As with the Islamic practice of the Sunni majority, Sufi cem (djem) communal rituals are performed with the general purpose of dhikr (remembrance, reminder). While in most Sufi orders women are rarely allowed to participate in rituals, in Bektashi–Alevi practice men and women worship together.

Sites such as this outline the annual cycle of Alevi cem rituals; they may also be held for initiation, commemoration, vows for good health, for joining the army, and so on. Langer summarises the sequence of an individual Alevi ritual thus: after a preliminary “discussion” (sohbetmore commonly muhabbet) by the presiding dede, and symbolic court case (görgü), the main service (ibadet) consists of a sequence of prayers (both solo and choral) to the Twelve Imams, hymns to the Twelve Duties, prayers of repentance, and invocations, concluding with an ecstatic sema dance. Sipos and Csáki (pp.53–66) give a detailed account of a full sequence of Bektashi ritual segments, which I summarise:

  • animal sacrifice and preparations
  • arrival, settlings, furnishings, lighting of the candles
  • “secret” section, including reconciliation of grievances (cf. the Uyghur mäshräp?)
  • sequence of nefes hymns
  • tripling (üçleme), with toasts
  • supper
  • pleasant [rather, instructive] conversation (muhabbet)
  • further sequence of nefes
  • semah whirling
  • closing prayers and blessings.

The ritual leader (dede/baba) presides, flanked by a bard (zakir or aşık), who leads the vocal liturgy accompanying himself on a bağlama long-necked plucked lute.

In orthodox Sunni ritual, even melodic instrumental music is considered unsuitable—just as in Chinese temple Buddhism and Daoism (cf. A cappella singing). Indeed, in China one’s search for “religious music” can easily be misled by such a narrow association (see Unpacking “Daoist music”, and The notation of ritual sound). As long as ethnographers pay attention to soundscape (still, alas, quite a tall order), our main theme should be ritual in society (note Michelle Bigenho‘s thoughtful comments).

Sipos and Csáki mention the collection work of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), reminding me yet again of China:

In the Turkish folk music stock of the TRT, numbering over 4,500 items, there are sporadic tasavvufı halk müziği or “folk religious” tunes, usually under the generic label of “folk song”. [footnote: The TRT repertoire contains the variants approved by a committee of the tunes officially permitted for publication. The committee often makes changes on the tunes before printing, first of all modifying the words not deemed appropriate.]

In China I have expressed grave reservations about UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage programme (see this roundup; note also Rachel Harris’s critique of their programme for Uyghur culture, in particular the mäshräp). For Turkey UNESCO has adopted the “Alevi–Bektashi sema ritual. This film could do with more documentation:

But their outline sums up the issue:

In Turkey, each and every inhabitant of the State is held to be Turkish and Sunni. If Alevis are not Sunni, how then can they be Turks? Since such a notion is inconceivable to many Turks, there is only one possible answer: since Alevis are Turks, they are also Sunnis. If this were not the case, they would become a danger for the Turkish nation and State. Consequently, research on Alevi religious rituals is potentially problematic both for the stability and security of the State and for the Turkish national psyche. To sum up, a large-scale education programme is needed to build bridges of communication between those belonging or not belonging to the Islamic world—Alevis, the Turkish Sunni majority, and the authorities, who usually perceive social reality through Sunni lenses. Future educational projects and campaigns should not concentrate solely on Alevi culture and religious rituals, but rather on folk culture and rituals in Turkey seen as a part of contemporary Turkish culture.

A Bektashi cemevi in Zeytinburnu
Despite my profound ignorance, local practitioners are most welcoming. On the European side of the Bosphorus, in Zeytinburnu “outside the walls” (now also a fragile home for many Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China) we visited a senior Bektashi couple at their apartment, where they hold regular cem gatherings.

Bektashi altar room

Bektashi Bahtiyar baba (on ritual sheepskin) and ana bash.

Bektashi baba and his wife (known as ana bash “leader of the female section”) were both born in Edirne in eastern Thrace, he in 1953, she in 1952; they mainly spoke Turkish. Their ancestors were all devotees. His parents had come to Edirne from Bulgaria in 1950; his father was also a Bektashi baba. Their families moved to Istanbul in the late 1950s.

BB on baglama Sipos and Csaki

Bektashi baba accompanying a cem. From Sipos and Csáki 2009.

He referred us to his solo recordings of hymns with bağlama plucked lute, featured in many YouTube playlists under Bektaş Bahtiyar, e.g. here.

An Alevi ritual in suburban Istanbul
In the distant southern suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we attended a weekly ritual at a well-appointed Alevi cemevi, consulting the wise Erzade Özgür dede (b.1983) and his wife Songül ana, who also possesses estimable ritual knowledge.

Before the pandemic struck, over a hundred devotees would take part in the cem; currently around twenty gather—male and female, old and young, all wearing their ordinary clothes, including the dede, who sits on the sheepskin with a mic, flanked by the zakir. He delivers a long opening muhabbet in his normal voice—instructive, personal, relaxed but serious—with occasional contributions from the congregation. The main participants at the meydan ritual arena tie red or green sashes at the waist, with two young men taking a staff; the gatekeeper holds a staff too.

After the muhabbet of over an hour, the zakir strikes up on bağlama, also amplified. His instrumental taksim leads into a nefes hymn; then another speech, and another song, as an 80-year-old Kurdish elder lights a three-candle electric candelabra. The congregation is now getting involved, with cries of “Allah Allah!”, then call-and-response.

The assistants remove their socks before blessing the carpet and unfolding it. Water is poured into a bowl while chanting, going round the congregation to ritually cleanse their hands and faces. Three women bow with a brush; more call-and-response; longer group chanting. All prostrate as the volume rises; kneeling, the worshippers all beat their thighs to a little suite of nefes with bağlama. The mood is ever more ecstatic.

Alevi sema 7

Another speech as all prostrate again, another bağlama song, then sema around the carpet with two men and two women, barefoot. They stand on the edge of the carpet to bow to the dede, who invites others to dance, with two more men joining in. With the three main dancers, slow and fast nefes alternate, accelerating wildly. The dancers bow again.

Then the women silently brush the carpet while bowing. The simple lokma food offerings are blessed. After another brief discussion, the candles are extinguished, the carpet replaced.

All this helped me appreciate the different roles of the twelve hizmet duties or services (cf. guanshi in north China, assistant to the huitou leader), such as çerağcı supervisor of the candles, süpürgeci sweeper, and selman provider of water for ritual washing.

Alevi cem group pic

Erzade dede A couple of days later, taking the Metro to the southern terminus, we were invited to supper at the couple’s apartment, along with a bright young disciple—another instructive and delightful evening. Erzade dede’s family brought him to Istanbul when he was 3. He was chosen by his grandfather at the age of 13—his father wasn’t a dede—and he sometimes commuted to Ankara for further instruction. After military service, and the death of his mentors, by his late 20s he was already taking over ritual duties. Having learned in his youth to sing nefes while playing the bağlama, now (like many urban dede) he leads the ritual alongside a separate zakir. He is a respected community leader.

An Alevi–Bektashi lodge in Kadıköy
On Sunday afternoon the following week we went to the Göztepe district of Kadıköy to visit an extensive and imposing Alevi–Bektashi dergâh lodge, rebuilt openly since the late 1980s. A throng of devotees were gathered, visiting the tombs in the grounds and seeking blessings from the dede for their young children and sick relatives, offering lokma. Accompanying himself on bağlama, a zakir sung a wonderful nefes hymn for us in praise of Abdal Musa (see sequel to this post), disciple of the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli. I look forward to returning for a regular ritual at their fine cemevi.

See also Alevi ritual in rural Anatolia.

* * *

Alevi ritual in the diaspora
The whole history of Bektashis and Alevis—before, during, and since the Ottoman era—is one of migration over a large area. Scholars such as Robert Langer explore the transfer to the wider diaspora in recent decades. The documentary Heavenly journeys (Marcel Klapp, 2015) illustrates Alevi ritual life in Germany, with comments from older and younger generations:

Note also Tözün Issa (ed.), Alevis in Europe: voices of migration, culture, and identity (2017), introduced here. And for Alevis in Toronto, see Ayhan Erol, “Identity, migration and transnationalism: expressive cultural practices of the Toronto Alevi community (2012). [7]

 

Setting forth from the guidance of Kadir and the diligence of Augusta,
with gratitude to wise Bektashi–Alevi elders!


[1] For the transnational picture, see e.g. The Routledge handbook on Sufism (2021); for a basic outline of Sufi orders in Turkey, see e.g. here, and for Ottoman Constantinople, here (a useful site). Kadir Filiz directs me to the classic study Richard Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens.

[2] I adopt the common form Bektashi rather than the orthography Bektaşi. For the Ottoman social-political context of Bektashi orders, see Caroline Finkel, Osman’s dream; brief mentions that may pique one’s interest include Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger, pp.187–90; Mark Mazower, Salonica: city of ghosts, pp.81–2.

[3] For a casual connection, cf. “red-head” Daoists in Taiwan, e.g. Kristofer Schipper, “Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”.

[4] Again, cf. folk hui assemblies/associations/sects in China—by contrast with officially-registered “venues for religious activity”, where only a tiny amount of overall ritual life takes place.

[5] This article includes a list of 64 cemevi in Istanbul (cf. historical photos of the tekke, and this introduction; for architectural features, and more vocabulary, click here). On politics, see e.g. Tahire Erman & Emrah Göker, “Alevi politics in contemporary Turkey” (2000), and sources cited in this post under “Ritual practice”. For the wider religious background since the founding of the Republic, see here. As I write, yet another round of the Alevi Federation’s dispute over the exorbitant utility bills suffered by the cemevi is under way, hinging on its attempts to gain status for them as places of worship.

[6] For briefer introductions to Bektashi ritual and music, see e.g. here; wiki has articles on the Bektashi order, Alevism (here and here), Alevi history, and sema / sama.
For Thrace, in Janos Sipos and Eva Csáki, The psalms and folk songs of a mystical Turkish order: the music of Bektashis in Thrace (2009; 669 pages, consisting largely of transcriptions and lyrics with translations), note “The religious ceremony” and “The music of the Bektashis in Thrace” (pp.38–77). Jérôme Cler’s introduction to the topic for Anatolia is enriched by videos and further links; see sequel to this post. My taste for ritual sequences is amply displayed in the many posts on local ritual in China.

[7] For Mevlevi practice in Germany, see Osman Öksüzoğlu, “Music and ritual in Trebbus Mevlevi tekke (lodge) in Germany” (2019). Among a profusion of Sufi groups around Turkey and elsewhere, the Mevlevi order (founded by Rumi, with its centre at Konya) enjoys a high profile, notably for its association with the “Whirling Dervishes”.

Squaw

Squaw

No great surprise that squaw, one of the few supposedly Native American terms that my generation absorbed in our youth through the insidious influence of TV, is now widely considered “offensive, derogatory, misogynist, and racist”, as an interesting wiki article observes.

In English the word was first used in colonial literature in 1622. An article in Indian Country Today makes a token attempt at balance (“squaw is either offensive or historically accurate in portraying a female Indian woman”; see also here); but even if linguists are correct to query the connection of the S-word with the C-word, there are plenty of reasons to reject the term.

In 1968 Loretta Lynn (herself of Cherokee heritage) could still sing Your squaw is on the warpath (1968)—an otherwise impeccably feminist song:

And the experimental Native American singer Jim Pepper included Squaw song on his 1971 album Pepper’s Pow Wow. But by then squaw was among a whole range of stereotypes that were being discredited. For such images in well-meaning early documentaries, see my post on Navajo culture, under “On film”; see also Native American cultures: a roundup.

In November 2021, in line with decades of work by Indigenous activists, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland furthered the movement to remove offensive place-names.

See also Stewart Lee‘s demolition of fulminations against “PC gone mad”.

The Club

Club actors

Like Turkish audiences, I’ve been riveted by the recent ten-instalment TV series The Club (Netflix, 2021), directed by Seren Yüce and Zeynep Günay Tan. The drama exposes the multicultural Turkish elephant in the room, probing the boundaries of free speech today (cf. The Armenian genocide).

Netflix offers a choice of seven languages, with subtitles, in any combination you please; I wasn’t too disturbed by the somewhat stilted voices in the dubbed English version, but I envy local viewers their ability to catch the nuance of the conversational switches between Turkish, Ladino, and Greek in the original soundtrack.

Club mother daughter

Revolving around Istanbul’s Jewish community (with Ladino often heard), the plot is framed by the wealth tax of 1942—heavily penalising non-Muslims—and the anti-Greek pogrom of 1955, also ignited by ethnic tensions in Cyprus. In 1955, Matilda, a Jewish ex-convict, finds work in one of Istanbul’s leading nightclubs. As she tries to rebuild her relationship with her daughter Raşel, Matilda struggles to keep her away from Muslim playboy İsmet. With the outrageously camp singing star Selim, she also stands against her boss Orhan and nightclub manager Çelebi.

With such issues unfamiliar to many viewers, the series has been warmly received by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike (reviews e.g. here and here). It’s also a visual period-piece, with charismatic actors—and some great songs carefully chosen to enhance the dramatic moment.

Club Selim

This YouTube playlist includes, in Ladino, the exquisite Yo era ninya (cf. this popular version):

and Adio kerida, sung by Yasmin Levy: