Lhasa: streets with memories

*Part of my extensive series on Tibet*

Lhasa cover

Having revisited Keila Diehl’s study of the soundscapes of Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, I’ve also learned from re-reading an imaginative evocation of the focus of their longing:

  • Robert Barnett, Lhasa: streets with memories (2006).

Just as Lhasa can’t stand for the whole of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the latter doesn’t represent the whole of “Greater Tibet”, with the majority of Tibetan people within the PRC living in the extensive regions of Amdo and Kham to the north and east, comprising large areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. Along with fine scholars such as Tsering Shakya and Melvyn Goldstein, Robbie has documented the modern history of Tibet in detail—the 1950 invasion, the 1959 uprising, the Cultural Revolution; the early 1980s’ reforms, protests from 1987, the tightened security from 1993 as Chinese (both migrant workers and tourists) began to flood the city, and renewed unrest since 2008.

The book is a sophisticated and personal affective history of a city, revolving around memory (cf. more recent volumes edited by Robbie, Forbidden memory and Conflicting memories). He eschews simplistic stereotypes: both nostalgia for an “unspoilt” mystical paradise before the 1950 invasion, and horror at the garish modern architecture that bludgeons dwellers with the inescapable Chinese presence. The main text, interspersed with notes on his visits to the city, is quite succinct, with substantial endnotes not cued in the main text but offered as further reading—it’s a blessing that one’s reading is uninterrupted by in-text references.

He opens the Preface with some broad context:

Returning to London after some years away, I am struck by the way each street evokes specific memories and sometimes poignant feelings. I sit on the upper deck of the No.55 bus and look over the iron railings and the walls that shield Gray’s Inn Fields. I see the windows of an office once occupied by a leading politician, and the blue plaque that marks the house in Doughty Street where Dickens lived…

Some of these associations mark moments that are significant only to me, while others might be relevant to a larger community. Some derive their potency from something I have read or heard, a film I have seen, or scraps of conversation that I cannot quite recall. They are triggered by the sight of memorable buildings and places that I pass.

Cities can be illegible to foreign visitors; as Robbie excavates the multiple stories of Lhasa, he finds that

some of the elements that I will find will turn out in time to be my own invention, or to be irrelevant to the web of associations most valued by the inhabitants or even damaging to their interests.

In the following Note on history, he traces inhabitants’ reserve about speaking with foreign visitors back to the British military expedition led by Younghusband in 1903–4. This was followed in 1910 by another invasion, this time from the East, as a Chinese military force occupied Lhasa; but the 13th Dalai Lama soon declared his country fully independent. Robbie gives a lucid, nuanced account of the debates over the status of Tibet, ably rebutting Chinese claims.

Lhasa 1904Plan of Lhasa, 1904, by L.A. Waddell. Source.

Chapter 1, “The unitary view”, critiques the rosy views of pre-occupation Lhasa by both outside observers and refugees—the “easygoing and carefree life” of religious festivals, picnics, and parties. Such accounts from exile represent

not naïveté or a desire to mislead, but a natural flattening of memory, an understandable form of evocation by people forced to abandon their homeland, and a counter to overstated, opposing claims by those who had usurped their positions and ridiculed their legacy.

Robbie reveals a more complex picture—not only theft and monkish misbehaviour, but incidents like the 1912 sacking of Tengyeling monastery, the blinding of Lungshar in the 1930s, and the prison death of the former regent Retring. Complementing such accounts is Jamyang Norbu’s article on the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa before the 1950 invasion.

A contrasting kind of one-dimensionality that mirrors nostalgic exile accounts is the typical Chinese view of the Tibetans as “enthusiastic and open-minded and good at singing and dancing”. The latter is a trusty cliché, dutifully parroted (even by a young Chinese musicologist trying to do fieldwork in Lhasa in 1956—though he wasn’t so naïve as to dispense with a revolver).

Besides, pre-1950 Lhasa was politically diverse, modernising, with an international presence. As early as 1904 Younghusband had been offered Huntley & Palmers biscuits in the Lhasa Yamen by amban commissioners—perhaps the inspiration for Jamyang Norbu’s vignette in The mandala of Sherlock Holmes.

Such reflections are juxtaposed with Robbie’s notes on the trauma of his first visit in 1987, which coincided with a major demonstration against Chinese repression—first of a series of protests over the following years. He also uses these notes to suggest the partiality of his own impressions.

Chapter 2, “Foreign visitors, oscillations, and extremes”, continues the story of early portrayals of Lhasa. The golden roofs of the temples and the splendour of the Potala are staples in the accounts of visitors that yet accompany a contrasting image of dirt, both physical and moral. Not just Chinese but many Western observers too found the images of Tibetan Buddhism to reveal “bigotry, cruelty, and slavery”. Such visitors were at once entranced and repelled. Among the latter were Christian missionaries; Robbie cites a leaflet from as late as 1990:

Is there no light that cuts through the demonic darkness in Tibet, a nation long steeped in demonism and Tibetan Buddhism called Lamaism? … Satan has enslaved the people to a lifetime pre-occupation with right words and works. “Om mani padme hum” and other phrases are chanted repeatedly to false gods.

Such views can easily “mutate into engines of persecution”. I might add that while being a missionary would seem to be a serious handicap when seeking to understand a non-Christian culture, it has been noted that some of them have shown a remarkably enlightened view, favouring description rather than prescription.

Lhasa 1950s
Lhasa, late 1950s.

Meanwhile Robbie continues to unpack the Chinese attempt to rewrite history in Tibet. Most Chinese statistics and descriptions now use 1980 as the date

to mark the beginning of Chinese modernization in Tibet, much as if China had not been in control for the previous thirty years. […] Had the previous decades not been excised from the Chinese calculations, the overall achievement in Tibet, at least, might have seemed marginal.

Chapter 3 considers topography as a window on the Tibetans’ own moral world-view, with illustrations from early history, including the place of Buddhism. While they always conceived Lhasa as Ü, the “centre” of a square, later they depicted themselves as belonging to the northern, barren region—a different concept from the vain Chinese claim of occupying the “central kingdom”. Robbie gives a cogent account of debates over the “civilising” influence of the 7th-century Chinese princess Wencheng.

Chapter 4 looks at the spiritual geography of Lhasa, including the Potala, the Jokhang temple, the Barkor, and the Norbulingka. He notes that tranquility was not a fitting attribute to describe the city or its teeming monasteries; the Barkor was not only a pilgrimage site but a thriving market. The layout of the city was shaped not [only] by its religious edifices, but by the market squares and aristocratic mansions.

As elsewhere, there was no sense of contradiction between commerce and religion: for both Tibetans and foreign visitors,

the excitement of Lhasa was as much about shopping as about prayer—

until the Chinese occupation, when commerce and supplies abruptly disappeared.

It is one of the great tragicomic ironies of the Chinese presence that since the new transition point of 1980, Beijing’s main claim to legitimacy in Tibet has been the fact that it has brought consumer commodities to Tibet; until the Chinese arrived, the shops had been full of them.

Chapter 5 considers the 1980s’ reforms, when the Chinese began initiating grandiose construction projects—hotels, hospitals, squares, danwei work units, long broad thoroughfares. As the city expanded hugely, formerly isolated settlements on the outskirts became part of an unbroken urban sprawl. Around the Barkor some noble mansions remained intact, but many old houses had been so neglected for decades that demolition seemed inevitable. New buildings before the late 1980s were “large, symmetrical, and regular, […] statements of the solidity and purposiveness of the new regime”.

À propos foreign rulers making a statement by reshaping the streets of another nation’s capital, Robbie offers an aside on the Hanoverian project in Edinburgh,

the capital of a mountain territory with a strong and traditional religious culture scorned by the new rulers; it had also been annexed, through a claimed but disputed legal process, by a neighbouring state. In both cases the new rulers belonged to an aspirant dynasty that had foreign, protestant, progressivist, and puritanical ideas. Both dynasties were capable of immense feats of organisation, rapid technological advancement, and inordinate cruelty.

In 1995 a new set of construction projects for Lhasa was unveiled, among which the most grandiose was the vast military parade ground of the New Potala Palace Square—nicknamed Kalachakra Square by the locals in subtle homage to the exiled Dalai Lama.

I reflect that just as in Beijing, it seems absurd that one can now be nostalgic for the old architecture not only of the 1950s, but even of the 1980s.

Chapter 6 continues the story with the vogue for geometric structures in glass and chrome, replacing the former concrete. Until then,

building primarily in cement offered the advantage that fewer trees would need to be cut down in Tibet. This rationale was largely theoretical, because the Tibetan forests were anyway then being cleared to supply the market for timber in inland China.

From 1992, as petty commerce was encouraged, box-shaped, one-room shops proliferated in central Lhasa. Karaoke bars also became highly popular. In 1996 the official Party newspaper in Tibet published a letter from an unnamed reader:

Comrade Editor,
On a recent stroll through the streets of Lhasa, this writer discovered that the shop signs of several stores, restaurants, and karaoke dance halls showed extremely poor taste. Their display is strongly coloured by feudal superstitions, low and vulgar, of mean style, with some even making indiscriminate use of foreign names…

By 1997, while the city covered an area seventeen times that of 1950, the Tibetan quarter was shrinking fast. With the rise of (largely Chinese) tourism, some efforts were made to create new buildings that blended with the Jokhang in style, if only cosmetically.

Late in the 20th century the Tibetan quarter of Lhasa was thus a confusion of religiosity, decaying mansions, feverish construction, half-planned amenities, and demolition sites as it faced the onward rush of rapid modernization.

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Chapter 7 takes us into the 21st century. At last, private houses were built in a hybrid Tibetan style. As wages of government employees rose, partly in compensation for restrictions on their behaviour and to mollify them for the influx of Chinese workers, some built new Simsha homes on the outskirts: “a new style of Tibetan housing, living, and class division had finally emerged”. Parks too, rendered soulless under Maoism, became Tibetanized. Still, casual visitors were unlikely to notice such changes amidst the hypermarkets and giant housing developments.

Western journalists and writers like myself found that our stories of five or ten years earlier had to be rewritten. Like our predecessors who had come with the British invasion a century before, we arrived prepared to write about the iniquities of the system and departed somewhat in awe of its achievements. This time the achievements were economic rather than spiritual, the system was Chinese rather than Tibetan, and the change was effected by major alterations in local policies more than by the exigencies of foreign outlook or temperament. Those who had created narratives after 1987 that focused on dissent, protest, and their suppression by the state found themselves wandering down streets where there were fewer police visible and far less crime than in the cities from which they had come. Those streets were now lined with arcades, malls, and shops advertising the same cornucopia of endlessly available commodity goods we were accustomed from our own histories to see as the goal of social progress.

Some writers even began to tone down their criticisms of the regime. While “the modern mechanisms of discreet control still abounded”, open demonstrations had ceased—for now.

Robbie also notes the “Tibet chic” craze among the Chinese middle classes, with a new respect for Tibetan Buddhism, seeking spiritual enlightenment in a way not unlike that long pursued by Western pilgrims. This craze was not matched by greater state tolerance, as monasteries were controlled even more strictly.

Meanwhile Robbie was changing too; by now he was Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, spending summers in Lhasa as a visiting teacher at the university there; as he became accustomed to modernization, it lost the ability to shock him. He finds his vision becoming blurred:

As my life in Lhasa filled with the momentary excitements and quotidian disappointments of work, relationships, food, and sleep, the streets I had studied became ways to get to a meeting or a meal, and buildings whose history I had once dreamed of understanding became permeable exteriors of which only the contents mattered: they became unnoticed extensions of the people I knew and the ways in which they lived, talked, and slept. Any clarity of vision that I had once thought I had on arrival became obscured, and the lines that Italo Calvino had said were written in the corners of city streets and the gratings of windows became invisible. They could not be deciphered. They were no longer available as the distinct elements that the foreign writer wishes for, to control, describe, and play with according to his or her dreams.

As to interactions with Lhasa dwellers, as he has already noted, where the line lies that Tibetans cannot safely cross in conversations with others

is a matter of contention, and it changes from time to time, according to political conditions, the temperament of certain leaders, individual interpretations, and, most dangerously, erroneous calculation of risk.

Visitors may not know when they have caused harm. He and his students

mainly inferred the rules that limited us through a vague sense of recent history or from collective fears. These last were more effective than explicit prohibitions.

In Chapter 8 he talks with a Chinese friend who confides, in a rare moment of candour:

“I do not like what we have done to this city. We have not treated these Tibetans as well as they deserve. The buildings are too low. What this place needs is tower blocks like we have in Chengdu.”

And he visits a student in his class, a stern-faced Chinese cadre who was part-owner of a high-class nightclub. Locals would describe her as gya ma bod, neither Chinese nor Tibetan, a mestizo. Her Tibetan mother, born to a poor rural family, had become a leading official.

The half-goat, half-sheep grazes both the pastureland and the mountainsides; she doesn’t run away to sea. The pure-breed lives only in the imagination, and finally migrates in search of dreams; the hybrid buys shares in nightclubs, reads books in foreign languages, and adapts. The one enchants, the other discards outward charms. With her the future lies.

In the brief concluding Chapter 9 Robbie recaps the diverse architectural styles and the world-views they represent, reminding us of earlier historical themes.

Within the walled and unwalled compounds of the city formed by these streets and buildings live people the archaeology of whose lives can scarcely be read from their exteriors, and whose present surroundings may speak nothing of their histories and desires.

While interrogating silent buildings may seem a poor substitute for meaningful interaction with people, Robbie stresses the dangers of claiming “knowledge” of such a culture, and gives revealing notes on necessarily guarded encounters with Tibetan (and Chinese) Lhasa dwellers. He has led the way in detailing the indignities and abuses from which Tibetans continue to suffer under Chinese rule, but here they are hinted at rather than spelled out. In similar vein, the book is illustrated with line drawings—again, of buildings rather than people; and again, whereas one might suppose that photos would have reminded us better that Lhasa is a Real Place (for remarkable photos from the Cultural Revolution there, note Woeser’s book on the topic), instead the drawings underline Robbie’s focus on the elusive, fuzzy nature of memory.

Since the book was published in 2006, the relative standoff that had prevailed in Lhasa and further afield at the turn of the new century has again been shattered by yet another cycle of protest and repression (for Robbie’s analysis of the 2008 protests, see e.g. here). Surveillance has become ever more high-tech, with police cameras and checkpoints prominent.

Alongside documentation that is rarely so qualified by doubts about subjectivity, Lhasa: streets with memories is a most welcome study. For updates, see e.g. posts (in Chinese) by Tsering Woeser (blog; Twitter), such as this (translated) from 2013.

It is most important to keep the travails of the Tibetans in the public eye alongside those of the Uyghurs.

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.

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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”.

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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.

Musicking: the crutch of exegesis

Ravel prom

When I go to concerts, I’ve always resented forking out for a programme. Such insights as it may bequeath are sandwiched between an array of glossy advertisements, reminding us of the mundane capitalism from which the event promises to afford us temporary refuge. Sometimes I do grudgingly buy a programme in search of some nugget of wisdom, but ideally I’d rather not be distracted from the experience of live musicking.

Having broached the issue here, sorry to go all world music on you again, but I can’t help going back to the ethnomusicological studies viewing Western Art Music (WAM) through the eyes and ears of a Martian, like Christopher Small’s Musicking or Bruno Nettl’s Heartland excursions. Concert audiences being highly literate, they tend to use that literacy as a crutch, a comfort blanket, seeking verbal explanation for an experience that might otherwise be more somatic and socially immersive. I wonder if we’re not quite prepared to immerse ourselves thus, almost as if we need some kind of distraction to allay potential embarrassment—while clubbers enter more fully into the live experience, audiences at rock concerts are distracted by filming the event on their phones…

Literacy is enshrined among the orchestral performers too, faithfully reproducing the printed score set before them; the conductor’s score on the podium serves as a holy text (the “quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance”), with only some maestros enhancing the experience by conducting from memory.

Ahouach
Ahouach
festivity, Morocco.

Conversely, at the musical gatherings of communities around much of the world (take your pick: Aboriginal dream songs, a Daoist ritual, an Alevi cem ceremony…)—where the participants may not even be literate—no need is felt to explicate the event in words, to list the performers and the conductor’s glittering list of recordings and forthcoming engagements, nor to tell us what Haydn was doing in London in 1795; rather, expressive culture is part of the fabric of the community, not hived off into a museum. Tickets aren’t on sale. I should add that there are plenty of events in Western societies where you don’t have to buy a ticket, or a programme, for an enriching musical experience—weddings, lullabies, Irish pub sessions

As to fieldworkers, no matter how they immerse themselves in a community, through the very nature of their constant questions (“Do you always do it like this? Is there a crucial part of the ceremony? Why are you inviting two groups of ritual specialists today?”) they will never attain the state of the inhabitants, for whom musical events form an intrinsic part of their lives. Of course, local participants may be quite capable of reflection, aware of nuances in performance, and concerned with the rules of variation; but such awareness is embedded in their hearts and bodies. The discursive mission of the ethnographer can only violate this sense.

Having already tried the patience of my Daoist master Li Manshan over the years by seeking to unravel the functions of the family ritual manuals, the changing performance practice since the 1950s, and so on, once I began depping occasionally for funerals with his Daoist band, I was able to add a most important insight: this is jolly hard work!

For the little segment of modern Western society that attends WAM concerts, the written exegeses of the programme booklet may enrich our appreciation of the event as well as distracting us from it. I now realise that the copious ads (for insurance companies, corporate sponsors, posh schools, retirement homes), so diligently blanked out by those drawn to the repertoire by some kind of spiritual bent, are just as revealing as the programme notes. Whether or not the ads are welcome, they convey a subliminal message, making a telling commentary on the social demographic of the audience. Concert-goers may be seduced by the myth of “music as a universal language”, but advertisers know better; programmes don’t tend to feature ads for food banks, helplines for immigrants, or offers of legal aid for striking health workers. As often in fieldwork, seemingly peripheral aspects, easily neglected, can afford valuable insights into the nature of the event.

The concerns of an audience for Mahler 7, apparently—
perhaps not so different from those of participants at a Chinese folk ritual:
providing for the security of the family?

Just saying, like… See also under Society and soundscape.

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:

Yangzhou 1958: a glimpse of Daoist ritual

Yangzhou cover

I’m always concerned to trace the story of research on ritual in China under the first fifteen years of Maoism from the 1949 “Liberation” until the eve of the Cultural Revolution. I’ve introduced the impressive 1956 project on Daoist ritual in Suzhou, and Yang Yinliu’s remarkable fieldwork in Hunan that same year (following his 1952–53 study of the music of the Zhihua temple in Beijing); the “Buddhist music” of Wutaishan was an early topic; and my post on a 1960 report on “old customs” of Wenzhou includes further links, as does Images from the Maoist era. I’ve commented on how the very concept of “Daoist/Buddhist/religious music” misleadingly ringfences the topic, when soundscape should anyway be a major element of ritual studies.

1966 was the major cut-off point, but research (and ritual practice) was highly constrained after the Socialist Education campaigns began in 1963; and already by 1957–58 the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Backward had disastrous consequences (see Cultural Revolutions). We can find several more signs of life on the eve of the Leap, such as the Xi’an scholar Li Shigen’s 1959 report on his 1957 visit to the White Cloud Mountain in Shaanbei. And I just recalled another one,

  • Yangzhou daojiao yinyue jieshao 揚州道教音乐介绍 [Introduction to the Daoist music of Yangzhou], edited by the Yangzhou Cultural Association (Wenlian). [1]

This slim mimeograph of 37 pages, compiled in 1957 and published in 1958, consists mainly of cipher-notation transcriptions of the Qingchui dipu Shifan gu 清吹笛譜十番鼓 gongche solfeggio score for dizi flute of (paraliturgical) melodies for Shifan ensemble, a score which is said to have been handed down in the Chenghuang miao temple since the Ming dynasty.

By contrast with the outstanding work of Yang Yinliu, the pamphlet is entirely reified, with no social context at all on the severely-reduced conditions of ritual activity in the urban temples or the surrounding countryside—but at least it suggests a concern for ritual music at the time, that was only able to get into full swing as traditions and scholarship revived after the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

After a nugatory, formulaic introduction, the transcriptions are in three sections: qingchui dipu 清吹笛譜 solo flute scores, daoqing 道情 popular vocal melodies, with texts, and—most interestingly—twelve zanjing 讚經 hymns, again with texts:

  • Baihe ci 白鶴詞
  • Jiuku zan 救苦讚
  • Putuo qu 普陀曲
  • Sanguan zan 三官讚
  • Kaijing zan 開經讚 (Songjing gongde 誦經功德)
  • Zhaoqing 召請 1
  • Zhaoqing 召請 2 (cf. the Invitation ritual in north Shanxi)
  • Huanghua dangxing tianzun 黃花荡形天尊
  • Zhuangzi tan kulou 莊子嘆骷髏 (again, cf. north Shanxi)
  • Qiyan Sanhua 七言散花
  • Zhuanlian ji 捲簾偈
  • Jishou guiyi 稽首皈依
  • Tan fusheng 嘆浮生

Yangzhou Sanguan zan
Hymn to the Three Officers (Sanguan zan).

Since the 1980s, the Anthology (see my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3, 2003) sometimes affords valuable prospects of local ritual traditions—such as the household Daoists of Changwu, subject of a substantial section in the narrative-singing volumes for Shaanxi. Otherwise, “religious music” mostly appears under the “instrumental music” volumes—supplementing recent fieldwork with studies from the 1950s. For Jiangsu province the coverage of “Daoist music” gives pride of place to Suzhou, Wuxi, and Maoshan; Yangzhou is absent.

Yangzhou 2007 coverPerhaps there has been further study, but Zhu Ruiyun 朱瑞云 (b.1929), the main author of the 1958 mimeograph, finally published a much expanded revision in 2007, Yangzhou daojiao yinyue kao 揚州道教音乐考. Despite all the advances in China in the ethnography of religion since the 1980s, its 366 pages are still largely limited to hackneyed musicological concerns. Zhu had no training in Daoism, but since the 1980s many other cultural workers around China managed to educate themselves about their local Daoist ritual traditions—some (as in Fujian, Jiangxi, and Hunan) becoming considerable authorities, producing a wealth of fine ethnographic work.

The introductory material, including a brief account of ritual practice, consists largely of generic citations from early history; Zhu spectacularly avoids even the briefest reference to any modern ritual activity in Yangzhou. In the transcriptions (now in Western stave notation), the brief section of hymns, after the opening Kaijing zan, even dispenses with the ritual texts that he provided in the 1958 mimeograph.

At least we now learn that the Qingchui dipu Shifan gu score was provided by Sun Guiyuan 孙归源, fourth-generation abbot of the Chenghuang miao temple, to whom Zhu was introduced while he was working the Bureau of Culture in 1957. And the brief account by Sun Guiyuan’s son, written in 1991, tells us that the temple was demolished in 1950 and the score destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

Alas, this is one book we can well do without. So Daoist ritual around Yangzhou still cries out for detailed research—not only on imperial history, but fieldwork on current activity (both temple and folk), [2] and studies of change from the Republican to Maoist eras. We may find the 1958 mimeograph meretricious (and a Happy New Year), but I still admire the work of scholars through all the travails of Maoism. Meanwhile, it’s a reminder to return to the splendid work on Daoist ritual around Suzhou and Wuxi.


[1] In Yangzhou, a more popular topic has been the lively (secular) folk traditions of qingqu 清曲 narrative-singing, which are the subject of many dedicated studies since the Yangzhou qingqu caifang baogao 揚州清曲采访报告 of 1962 (yet another impressive monograph from the Chinese Music Research Institute, in the lull between the famine and the Socialist Education campaigns), and the genre features prominently in the narrative-singing volumes of the Anthology.

[2] As usual, the most promising approach will be simply to spend time there “among the people”, chatting with locals and perhaps hanging out at funeral shops. Almost wherever one goes, household Daoist (and Buddhist) groups are in demand to provide services for mortuary rituals—as shown even by a popular article like this from 2016, in which the author, on a visit home to Yangzhou, is surprised to find that his father has taken up the Daoist trade late in life. For temple Buddhism, see e.g. this announcement for the Water-and-Land ritual as performed at the Daming si temple.

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!

From the holy mountain


The ancient fortress, monastery of St Anthony, Egypt.

Travel writing takes many forms, from Evliyâ Çelebi to Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, and Bruce Chatwin (for a wise survey of the genre through changing times, see this article by Barnaby Rogerson). Female authors like Dervla Murphy and Sarah Wheeler are in a minority. With added focus, generally sacrificing a certain readability, travel writing may shade into anthropology.

William Dalrymple (website; wiki) may seem like a natural successor to his travel-writing guru Patrick Leigh Fermor (see e.g. his tribute to Mani: travels in the southern Peloponnese). But whereas I find Leigh Fermor’s confident purple prose irksome, as he zigags “between sleeping on peasants’ mud floors and bursting into consular drawing-rooms or baronial halls with his letter of introduction: ‘Oh, good, there you are, just in time for the brandy’ ” (I concur with Neil Ascherson, who cites Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book Inventing Ruritania), Dalrymple’s own work is more endearing. Before going on to write distinguished scholarly tomes on Indian art and history, he hit on a winning formula with several popular travel books—including

Xanadu

His first book

soon became a bestseller. It describes his four-month journey along the Silk Road over the summer of 1986, before his final year as a Cambridge undergraduate—just as I was returning from my first stay in China.

In his own words,

In Xanadu records the impressions, prejudices, and enthusiasms of a very young, naïve and deeply Anglocentric undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self—bumptious, cocky, and self-confident, quick to judge and embarrassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations—is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can’t quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to, or at least cutting down to size, for his own good.

Indeed, “gazing at flowers from horseback” can produce trite generalisations (“Dogubayazit was full of sinister, swarthy Turks”), but his jovial tone makes for good reading.

His journey makes a cultured latter-day variant of the hippy trail that had borne fruit in leading Veronica Doubleday and John Baily to Afghanistan, where they made a base in Herat on the eve of the Russian invasion. With Dalrymple’s historical bent he reads up on early travellers’ accounts rather than on modern ethnography.

He begins at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where, having noted the sectarian divide, he takes some holy oil (which, as he notes wryly, he pours not into a goatskin flask but into a plastic phial from the Body Shop) to deliver to the site of Xanadu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan, just as Marco Polo had done in the 13th century. Following in Polo’s footsteps, * he embarks on an ambitious trek east, with two intrepid female companions in relay.

At my primary school we knew all about Marco Polo. He wore a turban, a stripy robe a bit like a dressing gown, and he rode a camel with only one hump. The Ladybird book which had this picture on the cover was the most heavily thumbed book on the school bookshelf. One day, my friends and I put some biscuits in a handkerchief, tied the handkerchief to a stick, and set off to China. It was an exhausting walk as there were no camels in Scotland, and by teatime we had eaten all our biscuits. There was also the problem that we were not absolutely sure where China was. It was beyond England, of that we were certain, but then we were not absolutely sure where England was either. Nonetheless we strode off manfully towards Haddington where there was a shop. We could ask there, we said. But when it began to get dark we turned around and went home for supper. After consultation we decided to put the plan on the shelf for a while. China could wait.

The trip, long unfeasible, at last looked more promising with the opening of the Karakorum Highway in 1986. In Jerusalem

the streets were filled with elderly Saga pensioners on pilgrimage from Preston; in the Via Dolorosa weeping Evangelicals sung “Kum-ba-ya” against the background of wailing muezzin. There were a few miserable-looking Presbyterians, some rotund Eastern European widows, and an Ethiopian cleric in his flowing cassock of grey serge.Pallid, short-sighted Orthodox Jews shuffled past clutching Uzi sub-machine guns. The Arabs—wearing pin-stripe for practicality, and keffiyeh to attract the tourists—had taken up station outside their shops: Rainbow Bazaar, The Omar Khayyam Souvenir Museum, Magic Coffee House, The Al-Haj Carpentry Store.

But as he notes,

This pantomime of subservience had gone on day after day for centuries. Jerusalem has always been a tourist town. The pilgrims have changed, religions have come and gone and empires with them; only the knickknack sellers remain.

Travelling through Israel by bus, he notes

the shoddy sprawl of supermarkets, warehouses, drive-in cinemas, factories, and military installations—all imposed over the old Palestinian villages, bulldozed after their inhabitants were evicted in 1948.

In Syria they go in search of traces of the Assassins, a militant wing of the heterodox Isma’ili sect in medieval times. In Aleppo he tuts at child slavery in a shoe factory, visits a nightclub (Django Reinhardt songs played by an Armenian band), and admires the architecture, commenting on the city’s long history of massacres and sieges.

They move on to Turkey, travelling northeast from Ayas to Sivas and Erzurum. His companion Laura tempers his romanticism:

“We could be the first people to see this view for hundreds of years,” I said, moved to unusual lyricism.

“Balls,” said Laura. “People come up here all the time.”

Gok medresse

In Sivas he contrasts the styles of the Ulu Cami mosque and (above) the nearby Gök medresse. With the medieval Armenian connection looming large, they also get a lesson on the 1915 genocide.

Laura chador

As they near the border with revolutionary Iran, logistical challenges become ever more daunting, with Laura now equipped with a full-length black chador and headscarf. They are underwhelmed by Tabriz:

The atmosphere of Tabriz on our arrival exactly paralleled that at the time of Polo. The oil wealth of the 60s and early 70s had financed a population explosion in the town, and if the town had ever had an old-fashioned, Russian flavour [as their guidebook claimed] it had certainly lost it by the time we visited. Like any other rapidly developing town in the Third World, Tabriz was surrounded by miles of ugly urban sprawl.

They get another lesson on politics from an Armenian priest. At Sultaniya and Saveh they ponder the story of the Three Wise Men and Zoroastrianism.

Unable to attempt the northern route through Afghanistan, they keep moving southeast, cadging lifts with groups of devout Afghans until they reach Baluchi Pakistan, a welcome relief. They move on to Quetta, where Dalrymple’s great-aunt had lived as the wife of the Commander of the Western Command, India.

They recover from the ordeal of the train to Lahore by enjoying the luxurious hospitality of a Pakistani friend from Cambridge—air conditioning, baths, clean clothes, a swimming pool, and Mozart, all making a well-deserved interlude between their travails (cf. Nigel Barley on the veranda). As he bids farewell to his brisk companion Laura—a cross between Boudicea and Joyce Grenfell—his fragrant accomplice Louisa arrives for the latter leg of the journey, “dressed as if for the King’s Road”. His love for Lahore has remained a major theme of his ouevre.

Having faced more Kafkaesque bureaucracy to gain permits to enter China, they set off again. With an interlude on Alexander the Great, they cross the border into Xinjiang, rejoining the trail of Marco Polo at Tashkurgan, yet another drab border town. More ingenuity is required in order to keep moving north towards Kashgar.

There they stay at Chini Bagh, residence of George Macartney for twenty-eight years around the turn of the 20th century as the Great Game was being waged, now converted into a dowdy hotel—offering yet another illustration of decline. Kashgar in the 1980s might now seem an unspoilt paradise, but it was already the object of modernisation with Chinese characteristics, its old city walls being demolished over a long period, like those of Chinese cities such as Beijing. Still, as yet there were no cars, and few bicycles; no police surveillance on every corner or labour camps. Venturing behind the façade, they are shown the sights by Mick, a genuine 60s’ hippy who has moved on from Kabul and Goa. They find a world of bazaars and craftsmen, and admire the Id Kah mosque; they even glean further clues to the Nestorians.

Uyghur kids KeriyaUyghur children, Keriya.

In retrospect this seems like a happy period for the Uyghurs, when despite the scars of the Cultural Revolution, cultural and religious traditions were reviving on a large scale. Along with local scholars, Sabine Trebinjac and Jean During were just starting to document the riches of Uyghur musical life.

Sabine KashgarWedding band, Kashgar 1988,
from booklet with 2-CD set Turkestan chinois/Xinjiang: musiques Ouïghoures.

Having spent ten days in Kashgar they negotiate a series of lifts to skirt the desert by the southern route via Khotan and Keriya. In Keriya they gatecrash a drunken banquet for German geologists hosted by effusive Chinese apparatchiks—which unexpectedly eases their onward progress in the company of a busload of stoned Uyghurs (hash “is to the Sinkiang People’s Autobus Company what McEwan’s Export is to British Rail”). In Charchan, exhausted, they are finally apprehended by the Public Security Bureau, who deport them by sending them by train all the way to Beijing, away from what they realise is the Lop Nor nuclear testing ground peopled by mutants.

By way of the Gansu corridor and Shaanxi, the train to Beijing takes six days, so they’re happy to graduate from Hard Seat to the luxury of Soft Sleeper.

I vowed never again to travel on a heap of coal slag, never again to stay in a hotel that smelled like a morgue, never again to use a squatter that belched up its contents over the user. I had done all that. If something needed to be proved it was proved. From now it would be a holiday cottage by the seaside, a rocking chair and some new, relaxing hobby, perhaps knitting or crochet.

After exploring Beijing by bike, and eating fourteen chocolate eclairs in three hours, they set off on one last mission north to the site of Kublai Khan’s summer capital Shangdu (Xanadu), on the steppe of what is now Inner Mongolia. Taking the train as far north as Chengde, summer palace of the Qing Manchu emperors, they again dodge the Public Security Bureau to take the bus to Duolun. Although the cops catch up with them, they finally reach their goal, where Dalrymple pours the oil from the Holy Sepulchre into the earth.

Then, rather as in the dénouement of Teddy bears’ picnic, they have to hurry back to take the plane home for the start of term.

WD and Lou
Back at Cambridge with Louisa, “looking smug”.

* * *

While In Xanadu makes some telling observations on the societies he travels through, the people whom Dalrymple encounters often seem merely a drôle backdrop.

Far from dropping out, his youthful Long March was the start of an illustrious career. Following City of Djinns (1994), I’ve been re-reading his third book,

It’s already in a different league. By now his blend of early history and contemporary observation is more assured and thoughtful. He’s no longer a backpacking student but an accredited journalist and author, and his budget is less constrained. The people he gets to meet are more informed, and at 454 pages the book is considerably longer than In Xanadu, allowing for more detail.

Holy mountain map

Dalrymple follows the path of the 6th-century monk John Moschos, guided by his book The spiritual meadow, a diary of his travels around the Eastern Byzantine world. He embarks on a six-month journey in search of the modern descendants of the Christian Levant—different political exigencies often making a dangerous trek.

In the popular imagination, the Levant passes from a classical past to an Islamic present with hardly a break.

Yet for over three hundred years before the rise of Islam in the 7th century the Eastern Mediterranean was almost entirely Christian. The spiritual meadow

could be read less as a dead history book than as the prologue to an unfolding tragedy whose final chapter is still being written. […]

Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity’s Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity’s modern Western incarnation.

Moreover,

In the Middle East, the reality of continuity has always been masked by a surface impression of cataclysm.

Dalrymple had already mastered the art of the short suggestive opening sentence with In Xanadu:

It was still dark when I left Sheikh Jarrah.

And the following chapter opens:

Latakia is a filthy hole. I had forgotten how bad it was.

He opens From the holy mountain at the Orthodox monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos—with another winning opening sentence:

My cell is bare and austere. **

Moving on to Istanbul, his vignette of the Pera Palace Hotel makes an extreme contrast with Athos. He reflects on the multi-ethnic Byzantine history of Constantinople, and the gradual erosion of tolerance since the late Ottoman era. Greek and Armenian priests give him a gloomy picture of the severely reduced current circumstances of their flocks. He visits the nearby Princes’ Islands, where Greeks were in a majority until the early 20th century.

But his quest is only just beginning.

As the physical world fell into decay, thousands left their families, intent […] on becoming monks and hermits in the desert.

He moves on to Antakya (Antioch) in southeast Anatolia, going in search of clues to the early stylites. From Moschos he gathers that

visiting these pillar saints was a popular afternoon’s outing for the pious ladies of Antioch’s more fashionable suburbs. […]

It was strange: a ragged illiterate hermit being fawned over by the rich and highly educated Greco-Roman aristocracy; yet odder still was the idea of a hermit famed for his ascetic simplicity punishing himself in the finest setting money could buy. It was like holding a hunger strike in the Ritz. […]

They were men who were thought to have crossed the boundary of reality and gained direct access to the divine. It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today only sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of sceptical Western rationality.

Next he visits the frontier town of Urfa, site of ancient Edessa, another crucible of diverse faiths (including Manicheans, Zoroastrians, and Nestorians), where

Orthodoxy was only one among a considerable number of options available to the inquiring believer. […] Doctrine was still in a state of continual flux, and no one interpretation of the Christian message and no single set of gospels had yet achieved dominance over any others.

In modern times, after waves of incidents, the whole region had been purged of Armenians in 1915 (though for a detailed recent ethnography, note Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation). He learns of the ongoing neglect of Armenian monuments, and the political constraints on archaeology.

Holy mountain 2
Suriani woman at the fortress church of Ein Wardo.

Diyarbakir, Dalrymple’s next stop, was now the centre of the Turkish army’s struggle with the PKK (cf. Some Kurdish bards). Braving a succession of checkpoints, Dalrymple manages to reach the ancient Suriani Orthodox monastery of Mar Gabriel, now much reduced but still functioning, as well as the fortified village of Ein Wardo, stronghold of Suriani defence against the Ottoman and Kurdish troops in 1915—an Assyrian genocide was under way at the same time as that of the Armenians.

Holy mountain 1

In search of clues to living Nestorianism, he is told:

“I believe there is a very large Nestorian community in … is there somewhere in London called Ealing?”

Ealing?”

“Yes, I think that’s right,” said George. “It was in Ealing that the current Nestorian Patriarch was crowned. There should be far more Nestorians in London than here. Ealing has the largest Nestorian community in Europe.”

Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century: go in search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find that they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.

After another fraught journey into Syria, then a relatively safe haven for Christians, he reaches Aleppo, with notes on another faded grand hotel that appealed to a former generation of English travellers:

The inexplicably horrible food, the decaying neo-Gothic architecture, the deep baths and the uncomfortable beds: no wonder Lawrence and his contemporaries felt so much at home here—the Baron is a perfect replica of some particularly Spartan English public school strangely displaced to the deserts of the Middle East.

Exploring the countryside, he notes the role of monks and holy men in quelling evil spirits, a tradition that still continues. He visits the convent of Seidnaya (previously visited by Colin Thubron), with Muslims praying together with Christians.

Back in Aleppo, he finds a church where the monks still sing Urfalee chant, “apparently the most ancient form of Christian music still being sung anywhere in the world” (cf. Chant and beyond). As Dalrymple fishes for a simple, exotic soundbite on the style, the Italian scholar Gianmaria Malacrida offers careful caveats—which I admire as much as I admire Dalrymple for citing them.

Click here for his update on the cultural damage in the early days of the Syrian civil war.

En route to Lebanon, he is struck by the surreal roadside artwork:

Perhaps strangest of all were the unlikely lines of hoardings that rose above the forbidding ruins lining the highway:a smiling Claudia Schiffer stretched out leopard-like in Salvatore Ferragamo next to a yellow sandstone French colonial villa so riddled with great round shrapnel-holes it resembled an outsize slice of Emmental; the Marlboro cowboy with his ten-gallon hat and herd of steers beaming out over an apocalyptic wasteland of shattered tower blocks; a metal tube of Bodymist—un beau corps sans effort—set against a carbon-black skeleton of twisted metal that had once been a filling station. […]

It was like a morality tale, spiralling downwards through one of the world’s greatest monuments to human frailty, a huge vortex of greed and envy, resentment and intolerance, hatred and materialism, a five-mile-long slalom of shellholes and designer labels, heavy artillery and glossy boutiques.

In Beirut he gains insights from the historian Kemal Salibi, who directs him to Leila Badr, an archaeologist who gives him leads to Byzantine remnants around the city. And he consults the journalist Robert Fisk, “a chronic war junkie” who gives him some valuable, if dodgy, contacts. He learns more of the Maronites, Christian supremacists who emerged from the civil war “with their reputation for ruthlessness, barbarity, and political incompetence enormously enhanced”. The trail leads him to the Maronite town of Bsharri, once famed for its saints, now for its warlords. It was soon to become a scenic tourist destination, not least as the birthplace of Khalil Gibran—whose bequest of the royalties from The prophet had led to a bitter war between rival Maronite clans. Back in Beirut, Dalrymple visits a camp for Christian refugees from Palestine.

Continuing south by a tortuous route into Israel, he gives a succinct introduction to the modern history of the occupation of the West Bank. He delves further into the Armenian history of Jerusalem, and (as in Turkey) learns more about the highly politicised world of archaeology in Israel. He expounds the history of St George, on whom the English have no monopoly.

As the various Christian populations of the Middle East seek sanctuary abroad, without them

the most important shrines in the Christian world will be left as museum pieces, preserved only for the curiosity of tourists. Christianity will no longer exist in the Holy Land as a living faith; a vast vacuum will exist in the very heart of Christendom. As the Archbishop of Canterbury recently warned, the area, “once centre of a strong Christian presence,” risks becoming “a theme park”, devoid of Christians “within fifteen years”.

Holy mountain 3
The monastery of Mar Saba.

Dalrymple enters the desert of the West Bank—once a rather densely populated terrain of monks and monasteries. Staying at Mar Saba, the only living monastery there, he admires their austere regime, but is less impressed by the inedible food. Again recalling Mount Athos, his descriptions of monastic rituals are always evocative (see below).

Ever the historian, he visits the chapel of St John Damascene, whose refutation of heresies The Fount of knowledge makes a critique of Islam—as a new, if heretical, form of Christianity:

What Damascene wrote in this cave was largely responsible for saving Byzantium from the ban against sacred art that has always been part of Islam and Judaism. Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.

And he draws our attention to the prayer niche, “another of those features of the early Christian world which has been lost to modern Western Christianity, yet which is still preserved in Islam”.

His explorations of Egypt start in Alexandria, long deserted by its Greek, Jewish, and Armenian entrepreneurs. Dalrymple visits an abandoned synagogue, and finds the gathering place of the city’s last Greeks.

He offers a vignette on the 1895 discovery of ancient papyrus fragments at Oxyrhynchus by the British archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt, remarkable not just for their classical texts but for their rich archive of Byzantine correspondence and administrative documents, revealing the lives of ordinary people.

In the desert southeast of Cairo he reaches the Coptic Orthodox monastery of St Anthony, still flourishing. Again, the 3rd-century hermit monk was pursued by a fan club of fashionable intelligentsia. By the early 5th century some seven hundred monasteries filled the desert between Jerusalem and the southern border of the Byzantine Empire.

In contrast to medieval Western monks, the Egyptian desert fathers also tended to reject the concept of learning, the worship of knowledge for its own sake. St Anthony was particularly scathing about books, proclaiming that “in the person whose mind is sound there is no need for letters”. […] Many of St Anthony’s Coptic followers emulated his example, preferring a life of hard manual labour and long hours of prayer to one of study.

Indeed, Plato had already lamented the discovery of writing!

Unlike the other monasteries on Dalrymple’s journey, St Anthony’s continues to attract young monks—literate, often university graduates, and keen students of arid farming techniques. Dalyrymple finds them “kind, gentle men, much more modest and reasonable than the bristling Greek brigands of Mar Saba or their sometimes fanatical brethren on Mount Athos”. He gives another vivid depiction of vespers:

Now, as if from nowhere, at least sixty monks had materialised in the nave and all were chanting loudly in a deep, rumbling plainchant quite different from the elusive, bitterwseet melodies of Gregorian chant or the angular, quickfire vespers of the Greeks. Individually the gentlest of men, the Copts at prayer made a massive, dense, booming sound, each stanza sung by the monastic cantor echoed by a thundering barrage of massed male voices. The wall of sound reverberated around the church, bouncing off the squinches of the dome, crashing onto the mud-brick roof then down again like a lead weight into the nave. Yet despite its heaviness, there was nothing harsh or brutal about the Coptic chant, the swelling notes of the refrain resolving to give the whole threnody a tragic, desolate air, as if all the distilled deprivations of generations of monks were being enunciated and offered up, at once an agonised atonement for the sins of mankind and exorcism foretelling the terrors of the night to come. […]

There was a moment of silence as the monks marched from the middle of the nave, through the swirling incense, to a long lectern near the sanctuary where a line of ancient bound vellum lectionaries lay open. There the brethren split into groups. Quietly at first, those on the north began singing a verse of the psalm of the day, those to the south answering them, the volume gradually rising, the stiff, illuminated pages of the service books all turning together as the chant thundered on into the late evening, accompanied now by an occasional clash of cymbals or an ecstatic ringing of triangles. As the service progressed and the tempo of the singing rose, novices swung their thuribles and the great cumulus clouds of frankincense coagulated into a thick white fog in the body of the nave…

I’d love to find videos of such rituals.

After five days in the seclusion of St Anthony’s, he is horrified by the mundane chaos of Cairo, and soon moves on in search of more desert monasteries. He eventually gains permission to visit the province of Asyut, centre of Egypt’s Coptic population, but closed to foreigners since the Islamist insurgency. The prospects seem gloomy, with Copts migrating, first to the anonymity of the cities, and then abroad. With an armed guard he reaches the fortified Coptic Abbey of Deir al-Muharraq, which had recently been attacked. As the convoy moves on to Kharga, an even more remote area, he reflects on the different problems confronting Christians around the Middle East:

In southeast Turkey the Syrian Christians were caught in the crossfire of a civil war, a distinct ethnic group trodden underfoot in the scrummage between two rival nationalisms, one Kurdish, the other Turkish. Here it was their ethnicity as much as their religion which counted against the Christians; they were not Kurds and not Turks, therefore they did not fit in. In Lebanon, the Maronites had reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing: their failure to compromise with the country’s Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians and a proportional diminution of Maronite power. The dilemma of the Palestinian Christians was quite different again. Their problem was that, like their Muslim compatriots, they were Arabs in a Jewish state, and as such suffered as second-class citizens in their own country, regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters. However, unlike most of the Muslims, they were educated professionals and found it relatively easy to emigrate, which they did, en masse. Very few were now left. Only in Egypt was the Christian population unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, and even there such violent fundamentalism was strictly limited to specific Cairo suburbs and a number of towns and villages in Upper Egypt, even if some degree of discrimination was evident across the country.

* * *

Dalrymple’s work exemplifies why many foreigners are attracted to the Mystic East, in search of grand architecture and the vestiges of ancient civilisations. Sometimes his work reads like a more dependable modern rebranding of Gurdjeff and the Truth Seekers; but his highly readable blending of early history, spiritual quest, and current affairs is really most impressive. 

FWIW, all this reminds me why I really don’t like travelling. It’s not really that I have any sense of “belonging” in London; but I’m averse to being a stranger, an ignorant foreigner unable to communicate. If I’m going to go somewhere, I want to stay there a bit, and get to know at least the basics of what makes the society tick. In China, “hit-and-run” missions can be useful, such as Yang Yinliu’s Hunan survey in 1956, or our reccies of south Fujian (1986/1990), north Shanxi (1992), and the plain south of Beijing; but I’ve relished making a base in one village, and with one family. Indeed, Dalrymple perhaps reached a similar conclusion, having made his home in Delhi since 1989, producing erudite (and always accessible) studies on the art and history of the Indian subcontinent.

* * *

Dalrymple has also written and presented several TV series. In From the holy mountain he himself exposed the long history of bitter conflict in the region (Moschos makes clear “the horrifying, almost apocalyptic nature of the destruction he witnessed around him”), exacerbated in a polarised modern world; so while he might have chosen to join the media in focusing on the gloomy outlook, with all the irreconcilable schisms, instead he prefers to preach a contrasting gospel—the shared roots, diversity, and historical tolerance of Christianity and Islam.

His pacifist credo is clear from the documentary Sufi soul: the mystic music of Islam that he presented for Channel 4 in 2005, directed by Simon Broughton (cf. the 2-CD set The Rough Guide to Sufi music). Filmed in Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Morocco, the programme offers a broad survey of Sufi musical traditions:

The exigencies of commercial TV suggest that I shouldn’t mark them down too much for including some of the Usual Suspects like the Whirling Dervishes (cf. Bektashi–Alevi ritual, 1). But hey, I continue to churn out armchair vignettes of world music—so “I can’t talk”…


* Later, Frances Wood‘s doubts that Marco Polo even reached China have not been well received.

** Perhaps someone can give me a more accurate version of the spoof on the classic opening for a crime novel that goes something like this:

Dead.

That’s what the portly middle-aged man lying in a crumpled heap with blood seeping over the bare warehouse floor from a gaping wound in his skull was.

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…

Kurdish culture: Zaza and Hawrami

Pir Saliyar 1

To follow Some Kurdish bards, and complementing Dervishes of Kurdistan, the Zaza constitute a substantial minority among the diverse regional groups of the Kurdish people.

Such material as I have seen [1] refers to groups in east Anatolia (within the borders of modern Turkey), home to a substantial population of Zazas who trace their origins to what is now north Iran. While most are Sunni Muslims, many are Alevi. Their modern history, like that of the Kurds generally, has been turbulent, with several bloody rebellions against the Turkish Republic, notably in Dersim (1937–38).

Zaza Alevi

The Zazaki language is considered in danger of extinction. This short film includes footage of an Alevi cem ritual (from 7.18):

Hawrami ritual: the Pir Şaliyar festival
To the southeast, way beyond Anatolia, the Hawraman (Avroman) region is also distinctive.

The large village of Hawraman Takht, in the foothills of the Zagros mountains near the western border of Iran (whose economy is boosted by smuggling), has attracted considerable attention for its grand annual festival commemorating the wedding of the ancient hermit saint-healer Pir Şaliyar, with the singing and dancing of dervishes accompanied by daf frame-drums. [2] Here’s a short film: [3]

It’s such a scenic village that I can’t help wondering how representative the festival is of ritual practice in the region, how it has changed in recent years under the influence of tourism (itself a valid subject of research, though I suspect this is the kind of event that many an anthropologist might avoid), and the routine practices of the dervishes once the visitors are gone.

Pir Saliyar 2

In the same region, I’m keen to learn more about siyaw chemane singing.


[1] See e.g. Mehmed S. Kaya, The Zaza Kurds of Turkey (2011); Paul White, here; abstracts from a conference on the Zaza in Anatolia—with many papers devoted to Alevism, and one on the actor and film director Yılmaz Güney (1937–84), among several Zaza Kurds with a high public profile; and even wiki (here and here). I note en passant that Zaza means “stammerer”.

[2] While I have yet to see more in-depth studies, brief media articles include
https://surfiran.com/pir-shalyar-kurdistan-iran/

https://caspianpost.com/en/post/culture/pir-shalyar-a-remarkable-festival-in-the-glorious-village-of-howraman-takht

https://www.tasteiran.net/stories/10068/pir-shalyar-ceremony

[3] This introduction is longer but far from ethnographic:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XB7T_FYuwqU&t=1842s

Some other brief clips:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9geEorXli6g

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3F6ZSjGx18

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otmilDUdxug

 

Dancing on the grave

Barley grave cover

  • Nigel Barley, Dancing on the grave: encounters with death (1995).

The innocent anthropologist is cited so often in my posts on fieldwork that I’ve awarded Barley his own tag in the sidebar.

Since much of my work in China consists in documenting funerals, it makes sense for me to seek perspectives from around the world. While bearing in mind the more abstruse ritual theories so lucidly introduced by Catherine Bell, Nigel Barley is always immensely readable. With typical humour, he surveys the variety of ways of viewing death and dealing with it, which are such an idée fixe of anthropology. Citing the major players such as Malinowski, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, and Bloch, he refers to a range of field reports.

Like detective fiction, it is not surprising “that Western anthropologists have sought, in funerary practice, the sense of an ending that would solve and interpret all the vicissitudes of life”.

Yet interest in “belief” may simply be a largely Western obsession. In China great concern with a common ritual response has gone quite happily with an overwhelming disregard for similarity of belief: it does not matter very much what you think you are doing as long as you do it like everyone else. It is left to a small number of foreign and local experts to worry about ideas.

On this most unpromising basis, different peoples have raised up complex and tortuous rites that are elaborated into true works of art.

(Cf. Geertz, and A flawed funeral.)

Indeed, Barley countenances the view that the fieldworker’s presence at funerals may be

a marker of the predatory nature of all research or the role of the anthropologist as undertaker and embalmer of moribund cultures.

(cf. my note on “re-hearsal”!).

He considers the public expression of grief. The performance of wailing (not only in cultures like China but in early modern rural Europe) seems to be largely a matter of etiquette. Other behaviours are diverse too: the firing of guns and beating of drums, or the widow “showing her appreciation of the mourner’s sympathy by brave but tight-lipped hand-grasping through a soggy hankie”. And “around the world, grief is as likely to find expression in verbal artifice and poetic fireworks as mere noise or stillness of sound or motion”.

By contrast with our own funerals, where “a blanket of straight-laced formality covers all”, in many cultures merriment and jokers are common. As the Nyakyusa of Malawi told Monica Wilson:

We talk and dance to comfort the relatives. If we others sat sad and glum then the grief of the relatives would exceed ours. If we just sorrowed what depths of griefs would they not reach? And so we sit and talk and laugh and dance until the relatives laugh too.

But Barley also unpacks the double-edged nature of joking at funerals, “walking a line between aggression and solace”.

In the writings of anthropologists on the sociality of African death, the triumph of the group over the individual is an endlessly reiterated theme that amounts to little more than an urging of the sick to “lie back and think of Africa”.

He considers the Mexican Day of the Dead, at odds with the Catholic church’s urging of “respect” and sobriety—not unlike the English wakes that were finally driven underground by the Puritan dictatorship. And he notes the “joke slot” in modern British rituals, which for our mortuary practices may occur in the disposal of the ashes. Perhaps Always look on the bright side of life hadn’t quite caught on; now it seems to have replaced Abide with me in popularity.

Barley intersperses his forays into diverse cultures both with reflections on his own English upbringing and with notes from his fieldwork in Cameroon—such as the classic story in The innocent anthropologist:

“What happens to a man’s powers/soul/spirit after he dies?” I tried querulously, like a vicar hoping to get a current affairs discussion going at a youth club. They ignored me. Then one young man turned round and snapped, “How should I know? Am I God?”

In another bold attempt to elicit origin myths among the Dowayo, Barley talks with the local schoolteacher. The conversation turns to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel:

“And Europeans?” I asked. “White men like myself. Where did they come from?”

He appraised me coolly. “I have studied the Bible in great depth, monsieur. As far as I recall, there are no white men in it.”

In English it’s common to avoid the word “died” by euphemism and a proliferation of terms; not just “passed away” (to which I’m allergic) or “gone to meet his maker”, but “take an early bath” and “hear the final whistle”, not to mention the rich lexicon of the Parrot sketch. The Layli of Bolivia say that a dead person “has gone to cultivate chilli pepper”.

Barley pics

Barley notes change, including the way that Chinese paper artefacts for burning keep pace with the latest consumer luxuries. Discussing the goods buried with the dead, he finds that such practices

do not necessarily translate easily into beliefs about the material needs of the dead or any surviving spirit. In a move that would drive anthropologists to distraction, pilgrims to the grave of Andy Warhol have taken to stacking it with unopened cans of Campbell’s soup.

He mentions the zombies of Haiti (cf. Zora Neale Hurston), “ghost marriages” (for China, see here, under “Excesses”), and the smashing of pots (cf. “smashing the bowl” at Chinese funerals: my film, 1.16.49). He introduces notions of kinship, gender issues, the siting of the grave, “bad deaths”, and political funerals—including those of state socialism:

While the incorruptible body might be seen by the peasants as a continuation of the traditional veneration of saints’ relics, the Soviet leadership seems to have urged its interpretation as an anti-mystical act, an engaging and debunking of the church’s claims of saintly preservation, neatly showing ritual’s ability to transmit two totally opposed messages at the same time.

The book ends with a useful bibliography and index.

* * *

Xingyuan 2011 female kin

To return to Chinese village funerals, held over two or three days, I remain impressed by their ritual exuberance and complexity; the differentiated attire of the kin, the shawm bands, firecrackers, communal meals, female wailers, the ritual sequences of the Daoists, the skits of itinerant beggars, the pop band on a stage outside the gate (for the latter, see my film, from 30.32). Young urban educated Chinese returning for the funeral of their grandparent will find all this remarkable too.

At the grave
My Daoist friends are bemused by my accounts of the perfunctory nature of our observances in England. Having observed as an outsider, Barley gives a personal account of his own father’s funeral. He remarks on the motley outfits, the architecture of the crematorium, the “witness” who spoke instead of a parson (“his model was a press conference”);

I felt angry at the hypocrisy of it all. We were colluding in a dishonourable pretence and we knew it. […]

The dull emptiness in your stomach is called grief. But grief isn’t the right word. It’s a sort of cocktail of acrid emotional pollutants of which the strongest element is surely guilt. Guilt for sins of omission and commission or perhaps simply when there is an emotional vacuum, nameless guilt just floods in to fill it up. Part of what we feel for our loved ones is a sort of addict’s dependence. Presence may not bring ecstasy but absence is unbearable. […]

I think there were hymns, but not the comforting meaningless hymns from school that carried feelings of nostalgia. In these, although the tunes were familiar, the words were wrong, all too spiritually correct and involving no allusion to a transcendental higher God. I had an intensely irritated feeling of being interfered with. […]

A trapdoor opened as in pantomime and the coffin disappeared. […]

At the house was an embarrassingly small group of largely unfamiliar relatives, a parody of kinship, testament to the failure of the Western family. The symbolism of the cold meats was horribly obvious.

“Dreadful,” one said with clicking false teeth. “When I were a lad there’d be horses with black plumes. What did we get this time? A bloody van. Not a hearse. A van like we were going to a building site. It’s not right.”

He also notes that Western funerals,

stressing as they do the uniqueness of the dead, deal heavily in separation and liminality but have very little to say about reintegration, leaving the mourners high and dry in their grief and the dead with nowhere to go.

In rather similar style, Kate Fox also interrogates funerals in Watching the English.

There are few rites of passage on earth that are as stilted, uncomfortable, and excruciatingly awkward as a typical English funeral.

The rituals “are just formal enough to make us feel stiff and resentful, but also informal enough to expose our social dis-ease”.

We are expected to say solemn, earnest, heartfelt things to the bereaved relatives, or respond to these things in a solemn, earnest, heartfelt way if we are the bereaved.

But not too heartfelt. […] Even those family and friends who are genuinely sad are not allowed to indulge in any cathartic weeping and wailing. Tears are permitted; a bit of quiet, unobtrusive sobbing and sniffing is acceptable, but the sort of anguished howling that is considered normal, and indeed expected, at funerals in many other cultures, would here be regarded as undignified and inappropriate.

And for once, our default mode of humour seems inappropriate; we “put on a brave face”. Fox gives a quaint list of the “optimum tear-quota”, classified by gender, affinity to the deceased, and age. She also observes class differences—with working class, lower-, middle-, and upper-middle classes, and upper class all having their own preferred ways of performing funerals.

Even the “outpouring of grief” (considered “un-English”) that followed the death of Princess Diana was marked largely by the typical English behaviour of “quiet, orderly, disciplined, dignified” queuing, and flowers; tears, but no wailing.

Fox may have exaggerated some of this for effect, but such critiques seem legitimate coming from cultural insiders. As she herself observes, self-deprecation is a major trait of the English; a Dowayo or Chinese ethnographer might be disturbed by aspects of our ritual behaviour, but I doubt if they would analyse it in quite the same way. Of course, these are not level playing-fields.

Anyway, while the laments of Barley and Fox strike a chord, I find myself surprisingly reluctant to indict the stoic stiff-upper-lip funerals of Middle England, or at least the mourners. Yes, our “blanket of straight-laced formality” covers drabness, repression, embarrassment—but a certain kindness is also notable. We too build on the cultural norms of our heritage. This may not be a grandiose anthropological insight, but people do their best in the circumstances.

Musicking in Ottoman Istanbul

Ersu 11
Performance in the presence of Sultan Ahmed III:
Burnaz Hasan Çelebi, the lead singer (left row at top, with hook nose and fur robe,
directing with his frame-drum), with tanbur, kemançe, ney, and santur.
Miniature by Nakkaş İbrahim, early 18th century. Source.

For the broad range of musical activity in late imperial China, I struggle to think of accounts that go beyond the generalised clichés of Confucian theory to depict the diverse soundscapes of local communities of the day.

For musicking in late Ottoman Istanbul/Constantinople, my dabblings (severely limited by my inability to read Turkish) aim merely to gain a very basic perspective. [1]

A major resource is the renowned travelogue of Evliyâ Çelebi (1611–82) (see e.g. under The tanners of Zeytinburnu). Among a wealth of material on all kinds of life, his accounts of the expressive cultures that he encountered on his journeys through the empire are exceptionally detailed. Evliya’s comments on musicking, as a participant observer, are the subject of considerable research in Turkey. [2]

While (as in China) much discussion is based on sources for art music, I learn from a useful online article in English,

He reminds us of the wider soundscape, encompassing venues such as the dergah dervish lodges, the Enderün palace, and the taverns; and occasions such as weddings, circumcision feasts, and parades (note also Ahmet Önal, “Public ceremonies in Ottoman Istanbul”). Music also accompanied dancing (such as kõcek) and ortaoyunu popular theatre, as well as wrestling, acrobatics, and juggling. 

Ersu 10

Bahçıvaoğlu Kolu’s ortaoyunu show in the presence of the sultan and his sons on a raft in front of the Aynalıkavak Palace. Miniature by Levni. Surname-i Vehbi.

Ersu Pekin notes the wide range of performers in a multilingual and multi-faith society,

from the sultan and şeyhülislam to the müderris (professor), qadi (judge), poet, dede, and dervish. Musicians served as religious functionaries in mosques, churches, and synagogues. They performed as street musicians and bards. They lived as concubines in the harem and as housewives.

Meclis gatherings were held by both elite and commoners, when people came together for conversation, poetry reading, drinking, and making music. From the 16th century, coffee houses became popular venues for musical interaction, attracting everyone “from the unemployed to candidate officers, qadismüderrises, high-ranking officials, imams, muezzins, and even ersatz Sufis”.  Among the article’s fine illustrations is this painting of possibly the first coffee house opened in Tahtakale, as described by Peçuyi:

coffee house

Taverns, according to Evliya Çelebi, were mostly located in Samadyakapusu, Kumkapu, Yeni Balıkpazarı, Unkapanı, Cibalikapusu, Ayakapusu, Fenerkapusu, Balatkapusu, Hasköy, and Galata. On the European side of the Bosphorus, there were taverns in Ortaköy, Kuruçeşme, Arnavutköy, Yeniköy, Tarabya, and Büyükdere, and on the Anatolian side in Kuzguncuk, Çengelköy, Üsküdar, and Kadıköy.

Ersu Pekin cites passages showing Evliya’s deep familiarity with a range of genres:

Horos Imâm, with whom I memorised the Qur’an in the has oda [privy chamber], and Tâyezâde Handân, Ferruhoğlu Assâf Beg, Ma‘ânoğlu, Keçeci Süleymân, and Amber Mustafâ, who were my friends reciting the adhan [call to prayer], all gathered in the place for music (meşkhane), near the bath in the palace, day and night, and performed music and fasıls of Hüseyin Baykara. […]

Hânende [vocalist] Kara Oğlan Âmidî was one of the students of Yahyâ, and he was a unique master in usûl-bend and sihr-i helâl. Together with the ruler of Bitlîs, Abdâl Hân, I have performed the fasıls of Hüseyin Baykara for three years in Persia, then in Erzurum with Defterdârzâde Mehemmed Pasha in ’56.

In Constantinople, combining with the makam system, the fasil suite form developed from its Persian origin, with masters such as Buhurizade Mustafa Efendi (Itrî, 1640–1712). Though known as a chamber genre, it also appears in Evliya’s accounts of the mehter Janissary bands (cited by Ersu Pekin):

About the parade of the performers of pipes and reeds: there were eleven instrumentalists who were craftsmen and they all were soldiers. They all tuned their instruments and performed Segah makam, then Emîr-i Hac peşrev and Hasan Cân peşrev, gül‘izâr peşrev;… and the fasıls of Tatar Hân semâ‘î, and paraded in front of the sultan with a great and loud performance. (n.38)

Forty soldiers performed three fasıls in the evening and in the morning; this is on the order of Mehmed the Conqueror. In the four places [jurisdictions] in Istanbul [Evliya uses the name İslâmbol], in Eyyub, Kasımpaşa, Galata, Tophane, Beşiktaş, Rumeli Hisarı, Yeniköy, Rumeli Yenihisarı, Kavak Yenihisarı, Beykoz, Anadolu Hisarı, Üsküdar, Kızkulesi, every evening and morning [dawn], the military band performs; the subaşıs, qadis, and dizdars [castle wardens] stand at attention; this is on the order of Mehmed the Conqueror, because these places were serhads[frontiers] at that time. In fact, they still are serhads. (n.74)

Besides native authors, Ersu Pekin cites the Polish Wojciech Bobowski (Ali Ufki, 1610–75) and the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723; see under Musics lost and found). As tastes changed, innovation is a constant theme, continuing with musicians such as the Mevlevi “composer” Dede Efendi (1778–1846).

Despite the broad social base, most paintings depicted events for the upper layers of society:

Ersu 14

Ensemble directed by lead singer Burnaz Hasan Çelebi (Enfi Hasan Ağa)
at the festivities of 1720.
Nakkaş İbrahim, Surname-i Vehbi.

Later, popular forms like şarkı began to replace the long fasil suites. Taking us into the early 20th century, Ersu Pekin sings the praises of Tanburi Cemil (1873–1916), who can be heard on many recordings on YouTube, including this album; here he plays a taksim on kemançe:

Has the memory of the city forgotten the music that reflected the refined taste of the Ottoman elite? Does the rich heritage contained in the records, now transformed into şarkı and peşrevs, semais and ghazels, reflect that old style? Alas, we will never know!

Jordi Savall’s recreations with Hesperion XX are always stimulating—here’s their 2009 album Istanbul, as playlist:

And their 2013 album Bal–kan: honey and blood:

* * *

Another useful introduction in English is

  • Cem Behar, “Music and musicians in the city”, in Shirine Hamedeh and Çiğdem Kafescioğlu (eds), A companion to early modern Istanbul (2021).

He too notes the broad social basis of musicking:

Traditional Ottoman/Turkish music could and did survive independently from the impetus or patronage provided by the ruling group, and the court was not the main centre of music making. […]

The musical tradition was sufficiently diffused and ingrained in the urban social tissue and resilient enough to survive the effects of random changes in the musical tastes, whims and preferences of rulers or their immediate entourage.

Cem Behar goes on to cite the biographical compendium of Şeyhülislâm Es’ad Efendi (1685–1753), which besides a few dignitaries and members of various Sufi orders, lists many musicians of humble origin. Many distinguished musicians were Greek, Jewish, or Armenian (cf. Zithers of Iran and Turkey). Behar stresses the blurred lines between “folk” and “art” musics, and between religious and secular styles (just as we need to do for China); as Constantinople became home to migrants from all over the empire, their regional styles were incorporated into music of the capital. Despite the common phenomenon of named “composers”, oral teaching and transmission were primary.

He describes changes in the building-blocks of usûl metre and makam scale, and the emergence of the fasil from the early 17th century.

The 1638 procession
Most celebrated are Evliya Çelebi’s vivid descriptions of the huge 1638 procession of the “guilds and professions, merchants and artisans” for Sultan Murat IV, “a kind of perambulatory census” with 1,001 guilds parading in 57 sections. [3] As the Sultan declared,

I desire that all the guilds of the city of Constantinople, both great and small, shall repair to my imperial camp. They shall exhibit the number of their men, shops, and professions, according to their old constitutions. They shall all pass before the Alay Köskü with their sheikhs and chiefs, on foot and on horseback, playing their eightfold music, so that I may see how many thousand men and how many guilds there are. It will be a procession the likes of which has never been seen before.

1638 procession

1638 procession 2
Source.

Among the groups parading were carpenters, fur-makers, toy-makers, bakers, butchers, mariners, cooks, confectioners, tavern keepers; civil servants, entertainers, madmen; corporations of beggars, of thieves and footpads, and of pimps and bankrupts; fools and mimics. Evliya even records disputes over precedence between rival groups.

This instance of Evliya’s attention to music (translated, impressionistically, by Joseph von Hammer, 1834) introduces some singers:

Evliya 42

And the 43rd section (pp.233–40) is a fine inventory:

If I, poor Evliya, should be asked where I found such a complete catalogue of musical instruments, I would answer that in my travels in Arabia and Persia, in Sweden and Denmark, in Germany, Poland, and Bohemia, I, myself, saw all of these instruments and many more, and, if it please God, I shall give a more complete description of them in my travels; but these are the instruments used at Constantinople, which I am much more conversant with, as I at all times delighted in the company of singers and musicians…

In the 39th section (pp.225–8) Evliya further describes the mehter Janissary bands, as well as instrument makers.

See also Landscapes of music in Istanbul, and Istanbul: multisensorial experiences.

* * *

Returning to late imperial China: there too the literati elite experienced a range of musicking in their quotidian social activities, even if they rarely described it. Apart from qin zither and pipa lute, or attending performances of opera and narrative-singing, they frequented temples, mingling with clerics, as well as taking part in chamber music with  lowly blind retainers. A useful alternative source is fiction, such as the detailed accounts of ritual life in The story of the stone, or Jin ping mei.

But material on Ottoman musicking, with the insider detail of Evliyâ Çelebi, seems particularly rich.


[1] I have yet to read other major sources in English such as

  • Walter Feldman, Music of the Ottoman court: makam, composition and the early Ottoman instrumental repertoire (1996), including chapters on the kanun, and taksim
  • Martin Greve (ed.), Writing the history of “Ottoman music” (2015), whose four parts discuss historiography, periodisation, folk music, and reconstruction.

Along with The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians and The Garland encyclopedia of world music, for the “classical” forms, see also Robert Labaree’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics. Dare I say it, the wiki article makes a useful introduction…

[2] An Evliya Çelebi bibliography by Robert Dankoff and Semih Tezcan (2015) lists Turkish studies on his discussions of music, as does Ulaş Özdemir (n.34 here). See also Aida Islam and Stefanija Zelenkovska Leshkova, “Ottoman music culture in the Balkans through the prism of the travel writer Evliya Celebi” (2016), and Dilek Göktürk-Cary, “Ottoman music in travel books” (2017).

[3] Some sections are translated in An Ottoman traveller: selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi, translated by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim (2011, pp.24–31). Along with his book Istanbul: the imperial city, John Freely uses Evliya’s account the 1638 procession as the basis for his own explorations in Stamboul sketches (1974, reprinted by Eland in 2014).

The song of the Italians

anthem 1

I’ve noted the exuberance of national anthems based on the style of Italian opera, notably that of Brazil. But I curiously omitted to pay homage to the Italian anthem, composed by Michele Novaro in 1847 when the concept of “Italy” was still novel. Though it soon became popular, it only became the national anthem in 1946.

With All Due Respect to the spirited renditions of players and spectators, it’s worth relishing it in a polished performance, with three of the six verses (1, 2, and 4):

For anyone not quite ready to sit through an entire Verdi opera, this makes a ready stopgap. The instrumental intro already passes through several moods in quick succession; the song, with its snappy modulation at 0.57, and the fine sequence from 1.18, is just as rousing.

anthem 2

Some of the lyrics may seem a tad niche, all the more so from the mouths of burly athletes—like the openings of verse 1:

Fratelli d’Italia, l’Italia s’è desta, dell’elmo di Scipio s’è cinta la testa.

and 2:

Noi fummo da secoli calpesti, derisi, perché non siam popolo, perché siam divisi.

Verse 4 is rather arcane too:

Dall’Alpi a Sicilia, dovunque è Legnano,
Ogn’uom di Ferruccio ha il core, ha la mano,
I bimbi d’Italia si chiaman Balilla,
Il suon d’ogni squilla i Vespri suonò [noisy Vespas].

And verse 5:

Son giunchi che piegano le spade vendute
Già l’Aquila d’Austria le penne ha perdute [make do with spaghetti then]
Il sangue d’Italia, il sangue Polacco [checks notes]
bevé col cosacco, ma il cor le bruciò.

Yet again, this exhilarating piece, bursting with energy and variety, only underlines the utter tedium of the British anthem (see also Haydn for football). For Italian folk musicking, click here; and do listen to Enza Pagliara!

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.

Istanbul: multisensorial experiences

Further to Landscapes of Istanbul:

Complementing the Music in the Ottoman empire and in Turkey project of the Orient-Institut, and as part of the institute’s online workshop series, Esther Voswinckel Filiz and Salih Demirtaş recently convened “Experience of a city: multisensorial approaches to past and present” (booklet here).

1

The series aims to bring together approaches from musicology, historical ethnography, anthropology of religion, and cultural studies in exploring experiences of the city. Its theme moves away from ocularcentrism (a useful word!), and the assumption of silence—exploring how sound, smell, taste, touch, and other senses are vital in cultural practices of dwelling, movement, and social life (cf. China: film, and attempts to correct the discursive bias of approaches to religion).

After a keynote by Cambridge anthropologist and musicologist Peter McMurray on dreamscapes, Martin Greve discusses the changing atmosphere of Alevi rituals in Dersim and Istanbul (cf. his 2018 article). Older people remember the greater spirituality of cems in ordinary village houses, including both trance and the performance of keramet supernatural power:

Music was not perceived as something isolated, but rather was a part of the all-encompassing atmosphere, where musical elements such as intonation, melody, or the control of voices had no separate importance.

2

Burcu Yaşin explores the sonic atmospheres of Romani wedding ceremonies in the Sarıgöl neighbourhood of Istanbul, where meticulously chosen songs stress the wealth of the spouses’ families, and recals (improvised poems performed mostly by women) praise the beauty of the bride. The festive atmosphere relies on the dynamic communication between participants and performers, all coming together as the members of the same community. She analyses how the Romani community employs music and sound to reproduce social hierarchies, to strengthen intercultural relations, and to subvert gender roles within the uniformed kinaesthesia imposed by the lead singer.

3

On late Ottoman Istanbul, Onur Engin explains how “talking machines” generated new modes of listening. Jacob Olley discusses the multisensorial clamour of the gazino, the screeching of the tram, and the seemingly unintelligible songs of migrant street musicians. Nazan Maksudyan explores sound and temporality, with houses of worship orienting their believers to the tempo of daily routine and religious life—citing the ezan call to prayer and the Orthodox semantron, as well as the secular innovation of clock towers. And Tülay Artan evokes soundscapes of the Ottoman Bosphorus:

Rain, nightingales, oars splashing and creaking, busy landing places, the hymns of dervishes, gulls and other sea birds, fishermen’s songs, calls to prayer, the wind in the trees, waves swirling around the wooden piles of piers and waterfront mansions. Reflected in the hues of the opposite shore, whether in sunlight or by the moon, and occasionally dotted by flickering candles, lanterns, torches, or fireflies.

4

It’s good to see (hear, taste, smell, touch…) Istanbul still serving as a hub for such creativity.

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

Sun dance rituals

Cheyenne 1909

Cheyenne Sun dance, c1909.  Source: wiki.

Supplementing my series on Native American cultures (notably Navajo rituals and the Ghost dance), Sun dance rituals are still performed by many groups of Plains Indians of north America such as the Cree, Salteaux, Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, and Blackfoot. [1]

The Sun dance is a complex series of rituals for the healing of the community, with drumming and singing, held annually over many days and nights in late spring or early summer—and preparations are said to take up much of the year in between. Ritual practice varies between tribal groups, and over time.

A medicine lodge is constructed of pole rafters radiating from a sacred central pole. The arena is surrounded by a camp of kin and friends singing and praying in support of the performers. For young male dancers among some groups it is an ordeal, an extreme physical and spiritual sacrifice which they have vowed to endure both for their own merit and to ensure tribal well-being. Having fasted for many days in the open, as they dance around a central pole they perform self-mortification, the skin of their chests or back pierced with skewers tied to the central pole (for self-mortification rituals elsewhere, see Dervishes of Kurdistan, including Amdo Tibetans and Hokkien Chinese, and the Rufai sect in the Balkans). But this is far from standard today, and it doesn’t feature in some early accounts.

Shoshone 1925

Shoshone Indians perform Sun dance at Fort Hall, 1925. Source: wiki.

Along with the whole suppression of indigenous peoples, the ritual was prohibited from 1883, but the ban was enforced only patchily. Detailed early studies include

The ban was lifted in Canada in 1951, in the USA in 1978. In 1993 a Lakota summit issued a declaration:

Whereas sacrilegious “sundances” for non-Indians are being conducted by charlatans and cult leaders who promote abominable and obscene imitations of our sacred Lakota sundance rites; […] We hereby and henceforth declare war against all persons who persist in exploiting, abusing, and misrepresenting the sacred traditions and spiritual practices of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.

Non-indigenous people were banned from attending the ritual in 2003.

Part of a trilogy on on the lives of Kanai Nation Blood Indians of the Blackfoot confederacy in Western Alberta, the short film Circle of the Sun (1960) shows little of the ritual, but rather the changing tastes of young people no longer bound to the reservation (oil-rigging, rodeo):

* * *

Sa 1898

Zitkala-Sa, 1898 with violin. Wiki.

The Dakota activist Zitkala-Sa (1876–1938) chronicled her struggles with cultural identity; her training in WAM led to The Sun Dance opera (1913), with William F. Hanson. Here’s a documentary:


[1] Among many online resources, see e.g.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Dance
https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sun-Dance
https://www.notesfromthefrontier.com/post/the-sun-dance-sacred-ceremony
http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.rel.046
and the detailed account
https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-lakota-sun-dance/

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

Gurdjieff and the Truth Seekers

Gurdjieff 1

As I absorbed the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s with regular forays to Watkins bookshop, Zen, Daoism, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, and Krishnamurti were all grist to my mill. Also part of this scene were Castaneda and Gurdjieff; but I was immune to them both at the time—and apparently I still am.

Anyway, I thought I should catch up with George Gurdjieff (c1877–1949; besides various Foundations, see e.g. the websites of the Gurdjieff Heritage Society and the Gurdjieff Legacy Foundation).

Of Armenian and Greek descent, he was brought up in the multi-ethnic society of Kars (“a remote and very boring town”) in the Transcaucasus. His father was a carpenter and amateur ashokh (ashik) bard. In early adulthood George travelled widely around Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, and India, seeking out dervishes, fakirs, and monastic sects.

By 1912 Gurdjieff was back in Moscow, where he conceived his ballet The struggle of the magicians (1914). He soon took pupils such as Peter Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann. After the Russian revolution he returned to his family home of Alexandropol, moving on to Tbilisi and Istanbul (where he attended the sema ritual of the “whirling dervishes”). He set up an Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Avon south of Paris, as well as visiting Berlin and London. After a car accident he began visiting the USA, raising funds and attracting followers. From 1936 he was based in Paris, where he remained through the war.

Gurdjieff cover

Meetings with remarkable men is the second book in Gurdjieff’s trilogy All and everything. He began writing it in 1927, revising it over many years; in English translation it was first published in 1963. It relates his intrepid expeditions with the “Community of Truth Seekers” before 1912, with a series of adventures in places such as Tabriz, Ferghana, Tashkent, Bukhara, Kashgar, Thebes, Babylon, India, and Siberia; whether he visited Tibet, perhaps as a Russian secret agent, looks dubious (see here, and here).

I find the book somewhat curious. While autobiographical in outline, its characters appear more symbolic than factual; it’s full of drôle anecdotes, short on ethnography. He recalls his father taking him to contests of ashokh bards in Van, Karabakh, and Subatan. He soon became attracted to a discursive, metaphysical mode of enquiry, and to the Wisdom of the Ancients.

And rather than the itinerant bards and folk dervishes of Sufi tradition, Gurdjieff’s main subjects are from a literate urban milieu, such as Father Borsh, dean of the Kars Military Cathedral; Bogachevsky, or Father Evlissi, assistant to the abbot of the chief monastery of the Essene brotherhood, who later became a monk in Russia, Turkey, Mount Athos, and Jerusalem; and the Russian prince Yuri Lubovedsky. He even introduces a remarkable woman: Vitvitskaya, Polish by birth, had been rescued from “white slavery” by the prince, and she became interested in his ideas, and took part in the team’s expeditions. After learning the piano, she began to explore the psychic dimensions of music, but died early.

Another companion on Gurdjieff’s travels was Soloviev. With an introduction from a dervish to the enigmatic Sarmoung brotherhood, they embarked on an expedition to find the brotherhood’s secret monastery “somewhere in the heart of Asia”. There, apparently, they witnessed the “sacred dances” of the priestesses. This whole passage is among several of Gurdjieff’s tall tales that stretch credibility.

While these Gurdjieff’s colleagues were interested in the occult, exploring hypnosis, fakirism, and séances, they ended up pursuing academic or scientific careers.

Much of the account is devoted to supernatural phenomena that seemed to defy rational explanation—such as an encounter with the “devil-worshipping” Yazidis, and efficacious rain prayers performed by an archimandrite from Antioch. Such experiences draw him further to the study of ancient esoteric literature. As they go in search of the Aïsor minority, he notes in passing the political turmoil among Turkish, Persian, and Russian Armenians.

Gurdjieff 2

To finance his explorations Gurdjieff engaged in various money-making enterprises—as repairman, tourist guide, shoe-shiner, and so on. In one of such ventures Gurdjieff learns how to make bric-a-brac, “all the rubbish with which it was at one time fashionable to decorate tables, chest of drawers, and special what-nots”. He notes the trade in relics, made by Aïsor household priests.

He mentions expeditions in search of monastic communities and dervishes without telling us anything much about them; they appear rather as exotic extras in an Indiana Jones movie. He bemoans European ignorance of Asia, yet this kind of mumbo-jumbo does little to dispel it. The book often reminds me of the brilliant spoof The ascent of Rum Doodle.

This is neither here nor there, but in my teens, fascinated by mysticisms farther east, I wouldn’t have been receptive to all this. Now, though I have become more enamoured of Sufism, and I (somewhat) admire Gurdjieff’s mystical quest, I am still resistant to his habit of re-dressing contemplative lifestyles as abstruse philosophy. This isn’t entirely fair of me: as at Zen or Christian communities, in his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man he was much concerned to embody his teachings in a whole way of living, such as manual labour. And of course, he was a product of his time, as we all are—we have to bear in mind that his travels took place before 1912.

Music
Gurdjieff’s music makes a rather minor theme. His best-known works were composed for piano in the 1920s, in collaboration with the Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann.

movements
Source.

This substantial ouevre, often associated with his “movements”, or sacred dances, is influenced by Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music and Russian Orthodox liturgy. Among many works on YouTube, here’s Musics of sayyids and dervishes:

and Meditation:

Of course, composers like Bartók commonly adapted folk material. But not all Gurdjieff fans will be led to the original Sufi sources of his inspiration.

If some of the piano pieces can sound rather twee, falling foul of the harmonic straitjacket (try the two “Tibetan” pieces at 37.54 and 57.26 on the Meditations album!), Gurdjieff’s improvisations at the harmonium, perhaps better suited to his style, are monochromatically meditative. Recordings of the latter were made in his Paris apartment in the last two years of his life:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for lengthy musical meditations, and the extreme affective contrasts of WAM are perhaps exceptional; but the over six hours’ worth (!) of recordings here will appeal only to the mystical masochist. Of course, one shouldn’t hear such improvisations divorced from the context of his soirées—better still, I suggest, would be not to hear them at all.

It’s also curious to think that Gurdjieff was based in Paris, where Messiaen discovered his own unique style of Catholic mysticism in which monumental works for piano and organ played a major role. Of course, the two men were totally different: for Messiaen, like Bach, music was the whole vast edifice within which he devoted himself to the service of God, and it entrances audiences irrespective of their faith—whereas Gurdjieff’s music will appeal mainly as a byway to adherents of his philosophy.

* * *

Peter Brook’s 1979 film version of Meetings with remarkable men, while bold, is inevitably rather English; perhaps more in tune with Gurdjieff’s mystical vision are the extraordinary fantasies of Sergei Parajanov. As to latter-day quests for gurus, try the travel writings of William Dalrymple, such as In Xanadu, From the holy mountain, and Nine lives.

Landscapes of music in Istanbul

Landscapes cover

The triangulation of music, politics, and geography is explored in

  • Alex G. Papadopoulos and Aslı Duru (eds), Landscapes of music in Istanbul: a cultural politics of place and exclusion (2017; online here).

Inevitably, the book can only offer a few illustrations of a diverse soundscape. As is common in ethnomusicology, the authors focus on the subaltern, marginal end of the spectrum, rather than highly audible soundscapes such as mainstream pop music, or the ezan call to prayer (cf. China, or Ukraine). Revolving around mahalle neighbourhoods, the chapters focus on the modern era, noting links with the Ottoman heritage.

Alex Papadopoulos wrote his introductory chapter “Music, urban contestation, and the politics of place in Istanbul” under the shadow of the Trump inauguration, suggesting pertinent analogies with “musics that build inclusion or express opposition to (even rage against) exclusion”. He cites Adam Gopnik on the “abyss between the man about to assume power and the best shared traditions of the country he represents”—traditions “that have implicated stories about race, class, war, and ethnicity”. Papadopoulos adduces the work of Martin Stokes work on arabesk, “an entire anti-culture” that “flaunts the failure of a process of reform whose icons and symbols dominate every aspect of Turkish life”.

All four of the genres considered express regional and trans-boundary mobilities, exposing exclusion and suggesting the potential for inclusion. Papadopoulos observes:

Landscapes can be modified or erased, as a palimpsest. Urban spaces and populations can be made to bend to the will of an adamant state and of hyper-animated capital. Musics can be deterritorialized from places of meaning and memory, and either silenced or channeled to electronic media that modulate their cultural (and political) character.

Papadopoulos continues with “Rembetika as embodiment of Istanbul’s margins: musical landscapes in and of transition”. He cites the classic ethnography of Ilias Petropoulos in Athens (see under Road to rebetika). The ethos of the genre, indeed the whole way of life, was transgressive (cf. Songs of Asia Minor, and Deviating from behavioural norms).

Rembetika music riffed on, lamented, mocked, attacked, and sung about the limitations and exclusions, injustices and cruel punishments (including incarceration), and anomie that mainstream society imposed upon the socially marginalised.

rembetika 52

If rembetika survived the efforts of the state to remodel the physical contours of the city, as a way of life it declined sharply in Istanbul after the population expulsions of 1922–23, the riots of 1955, and the further expulsion of Greeks in 1964, whereafter it was “rehomed” to the Hellenic mainland.

Both state cultures defined themselves in opposition to the multi-ethnic, multi-vernacular, cosmopolitan, imperial, and regional cultural forms of the Ottoman world, and went to considerable length to contain, if not expunge, vestiges of Ottoman culture. A musical heritage that was a reflection of empire—not unlike the musical cultures of the âşıks and the zeybeks—clearly, rembetika heightened the anxieties of Greek and Turkish nationalisms, which aimed at purity of cultural idiom.

He observes that rembetika (like many genres, one would add) loses its transgressive edge once transplanted from its underground neighbourhood hangouts into the safe settings of commercial clubs, concert halls and CDs. Since the 1960s it has become a classical, popular musical genre rather than a subversive one. New forms of music such as hip-hop have emerged to serve as commentary on, and resistance to, exclusion, and as community connective tissue and a link between marginalized communities and the world. This leads to Kevin Yildirim, “ ‘Poorness is ghettoness’: urban renewal and hip-hop acculturation in Sulukule, Istanbul”.

Resistance to the condominial agency of the state and finance capital in the gentrification of the low-rent neighbourhood is internationalized through the dissemination of hip-hop performances on social media.

Before Sulukule was destroyed by an urban renewal project in 2009, it was an established Romani neighbourhood in the central Istanbul district of Fatih. Its entertainment houses (eğlence evleri) were the main source of income for the community, but they were closed down in the early 1990s on the grounds that they were hotbeds of drugs and prostitution.

Now officially called Karagümrük, the neighbourhood is still known as Sulukule. As one analysis comments, the neo-Ottoman style of the new project is “in the direction of reviving a mythical ‘Ottoman past’ and an Islamic ethos”, and that it was decided upon so that Sulukule would “acquire new, impeccable morals based on Islam and the tourism sector”.

But the destruction kickstarted young people’s interest in hip-hop. Here’s Wonderland by Tahribad-ı İsyan, deploring the destruction (lyrics here):

But Yildirim looks/listens beyond video to “the aesthetics of everyday life in Sulukule as displayed through speech, within personal style, and in spaces”.

He notes that rappers in Istanbul must confront the irony of expressing their localized and rebellious identity through a globalised music genre. Here’s Istanbul by Nefret (lyrics here):

The Sulukule hip-hop scene is not homogenous in ethnic, gender, or social terms. Over the course of my visits to the Atelier [a youth centre that operated from 2010 to 2015] I interacted with male and female attendees who self-identified as Romani, Kurdish, Turkish, and Armenian; Sulukule residents and outsiders; those whose homes were destroyed in the renewal process, and those whose weren’t.

In conclusion Yildirim observes:

Instead of indicating a wholehearted rejection of capital accumulation in Istanbul, the rebellious urban identity of young Sulukule rappers and dancers may well signal their cautious entrance into the formal circuits of urban production.

While I’m clearly very far from home with Istanbul hip-hop, I’m uneasy too with the theoretical vocabulary that, however well-meaning, seems to assert another kind of ownership over it. Like the rappers, scholars seek to carve a niche for themselves in their own market.

Thomas Korovinis, “The âşıks: poet-minstrels of empire, enduring voice of the margins” introduces the mostly illiterate bards who accompanied their sung poetry on plucked lute (cf. Uyghur ashiq, or Ukrainian kobzar). Gravitating from folk contexts to urban âşık cafés, some became court poets to the wealthy. Their heyday was in the late 18th century; by the 20th century they were diffused among urban folk contexts. Vestiges were still evident in the 1990s at the saz yeri (saz hangouts).

Here’s the blind Alevi bard Âşık Veysel in 1969 (YouTube topic here):

The tradition, “deterritorialized from its historic identity of itinerancy, is reterritorialized in globalization as a malleable cultural commodity”.

Aşik culture can still be found in such diverse locations as the neighbourhood sidewalk, Istanbul clubs, the tourist circuit, rural Anatolia, and in electronic media. […]

Shuttling between marginality and victimisation (on the one hand) and public adoration and attention from intellectuals (on the other), in late modernity, at least some âşıks were eventually drawn into and normalised by the commodification of their music.

This leads suitably into Ulaş Özdemir, “Rethinking the institutionalization of Alevism: itinerant zakirs in the cemevis of Istanbul”, based on his 2016 book. Both in Istanbul and the Anatolian countryside, the zakirs are a crucial ingredient of cem rituals among Alevi groups (which I introduced here). In Istanbul some “itinerant zakirs” make the rounds of various groups. As Papadopoulos notes,

Inclusion is manifest in patterns of zakir intra-urban mobility, which bolsters new associations, musical partnerships, and richly emotional ties with dedes and cemevis. Paradoxically, perhaps, these same mobilities (a novel kind of itinerancy) also signal a rupture with how things used to be done, deepening rifts (and exclusion) between different visions of local-practised and institutional Alevism.

As attempts were made to legitimise Alevism by standardising its institutions, popular young zakirs like Dertli Divani emerged:

The itinerant zakirs, resistant to fixed residency, tended to counter this trend. As one explained:

I asked dede: “My dede, I always come and go but I feel like a civil servant here. I come here to fulfil my duty every Thursday. I want to visit other cemevis. I want to be touched (inspired) by a dede’s breath, a zakir’s voice; I want to learn things.” They did not like the idea much. Both the cemevi administration and the dede said “That is not going to happen.” But my desire was firm and at that point I said “I am leaving.” I started wandering: to the Garip Dede Lodge, the Yenibosna Cemevi, and so on.

The young zakirs were loyal not to a particular cemevi but to the search for the divine aşk [love] of inspirational dedes. Another zakir commented:

An âşık never has a place. For the âşık, the mountain and the plain are both the same, just a place. That is how I have always thought. I go wherever I am invited, without making any distinction among people.

This and the preceding chapter suffer rather from leaden translation.

Papadopoulos provides an Afterword, Gezi Park and Taksim Square as musical landscapes of exclusion and inclusion”, on the Gezi Part protests of 2013, in which music became “one of the public’s instruments of political expression and resistance”.

Whether it is termed urban planning, urban change, urban renewal, or gentrification, the transformation of urban land, especially when it is carried out without the participation and consent of the publics that occupy and have a sense of right to it, is vastly politically fraught. And when a given parcel of land is considered valuable, either because the land-use it incorporates is scarce (hence representing high instrumental value), or because it is infused with symbolism, then the stakes are high, as is the likelihood of its contestation.

Looking back at the history of the remoulding of Gezi Park since the 1940s,

Social media played a major role. One iconic song was Kardeş Türküler, Sound of pots and pans:

You are saying this and that
We are fed up
Your one-man decisions, your commands
We are fed up We are so bored
What kind of a wrath this is
What is this anger?
Take it easy
When they couldn’t sell their shadows they sold the forests
They closed down, demolished the cinemas and squares
Everywhere it is shopping mall
I don’t like to pass from your bridges
What happened to our city?
It is full of buildings with hormones.

The loss of access to Gezi Park that symbolises an open, liberal, cosmopolitan, and global Istanbul, is a harbinger of future political defeats for both liberal and radical communities. For the generation of marginalised Istanbul residents, such as those in Sulukule, displaced from their homes by gentrification, the liberal imaginings of a global city are unattainable, if not irrelevant, to their everyday existence. In their case, only radical means can offer lasting solutions, even if by radical action they reach out to hip-hop, or irreverent songs created on the fly once the tear gas dissipates.

In conclusion, Papadopoulos observes:

Music performed in public (on the street or on the sidewalk, at an unkempt urban lot or in a great square symbolic of the country’s political birth); music performed in the semi-public domain of a community hall, cultural foundation or place of worship; music played in the intimate surrounds of a coffee house or a tavern, or just outside it in the quiet alley in the “wings of the city”; music that is performed, live, or is sounded out of cassettes, CDs, or the Internet and social media; is co-constructive of the lived spaces and landscapes in which it is sounded.

See also Istanbul: multisensorial experiences.

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.

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:

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.

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.

Self-mortification rituals in the Balkans

Bektashi 1891 for blog
Albert Aublet, Ceremony of Rufai Dervishes (1891) (Houston David B. Chalmers Collection).

 At a tangent from Bektashis and Alevis (here and here) is the Rufai (Rifa’i) Sufi order, now most common in the Balkans.

Again thanks to Kadir Filiz, I note two remarkable early film sequences showing a Rufai lodge in Skopje performing the burhan ritual (“proof” of faith) with self-mortification (cf. Kurds, Amdo Tibetans, and Hokkien Chinese)—demonstrating both the shaykh’s charismatic powers and the worshippers’ transcendence of the mundane world. This silent footage shows a healing ritual at a lodge in 1930:

And this 1951 film—now with sound—was shown in 1955, with useful commentary:

That second footage shows the same group, in a much reduced lodge. By 1930 Skopje had just become part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia; after German occupation in World War Two, by the time of the 1951 footage it was part of Tito’s socialist state—offering food for thought on the maintenance of traditional ritual practice under such regimes, just as I find for Maoist China.

Kosovo BektashiRufai Sufis, Prizren, Kosovo.

Here’s a more recent clip of a Rufai (not Bektashi!) ritual in Kosovo, for Nevruz:

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.

The call to prayer

Imam

Imam declaiming from prayer niche in mosque following the call to prayer, Kuzguncuk 2022.

In Turkey, whereas the rituals of Sufi groups like Bektashis and Alevis take place largely beyond the earshot of outsiders, the call to prayer (ezan; Arabic adhan), declaimed five times daily by the muezzin, is the most public soundscape of mainstream Islam.

As I write from Istanbul, it punctuates my day; even on a fleeting visit, one might soon begin to take it for granted—but whatever the varied responses of those who have heard it from birth, its impassioned free-tempo melisma accompanies the hubbub surrounding the mundane lives of people who might otherwise be impervious to the complexities of traditional makam.

To make an impertinent analogy, it’s rather as if the entire population of Europe went about their daily business constantly hearing Mark Padmore as Evangelist sing the heart-rending recitative that leads into Erbarme dich in the Matthew Passion, growing up to internalise it as the bedrock of their aural experience.

Many of the great singers of the Arab and Persian worlds came from a background of performing sacred chant, like Mohammad Reza Shadjarian in Iran; musically, “sacred” and “profane” styles are related. A general Arabic term for sacred chant is inshād (cf. China: nian “reciting”, rather than secular “singing” chang), imbued with ḥiss “a voice charged with an acute potential for relating the spiritual needs of the community to God”. [1]

Again, of course I can only get a glimpse of this vast topic, but for Turkey, the Ottoman and Republican history of the ezan is introduced here. The Republican government’s attempt to make Turkish the compulsory language of the ezan lasted only from 1930 to 1948. Here’s a 1932 recording of Sadettin Kaynak in Turkish:

Meanwhile amplification became standard, with a loudspeaker mounted on the minaret—which suggests to me that muezzin no longer need to be so fit…

This sequence features ezan from Istanbul, Bursa, and Konya:

Note also the CD by David Parsons, The music of Islam vol. 10: Qur’an recitation, Istanbul, Turkey (1997), part of an extensive series.

Meeting a wise imam
In small villages the imam also assumes the role of muezzin; in larger communities they are usually separate duties. However, at the mosque just opposite the Kuzguncuk ferry (next to Armenian and Greek churches and a synagogue!) Aydin Hoca serves as both imam and muezzin; we learned much from our meetings with him.

Aydin Hoca cropped

Aydin Hoca is an exceptionally wise and tolerant man. Born in Manisa near Izmir, he studied “Islamic mystical music” (tasavvuf müzigi) at the ilahi (“spiritual”) department of the Imam Hatip High School—he has kept in contact with Manisa, joining in events there. He furthered his studies of ilahi by enrolling at the Open University in Eskisehir. 

In 1990, aged 25, Aydin Hoca settled in Istanbul, becoming muezzin that same year at the Kuzguncuk mosque, while taking vocal and musical training with the renowned Amir Ateş at the Üsküdar Music Society, and furthering his education in Turkish classical and sacred music with Mehmet Kemiksiz. He values the inspiration these teachers gave him, as well as his overall education in morality and humanitarian ethics under Hafiz Fahri, based in Bursa.

In 1996—the year his first son was born—Aydin Hoca became imam at the mosque. He continued to receive training in solo and choral singing under respected teachers. Though offered positions as imam in more prominent mosques in the city, he prefers to remain with his Kuzguncuk parishioners.

He cites the popular expression Aşk olmayinca meşk olmaz “without love there can be no dedication” (meşk “devotion to practice”, often used in the context of music, perhaps resembling the riaz of north Indian raga). As in any walk of life, a voice can only be trained through diligence and application; oral transmission from master to disciple (usta-cirak) is crucial, as he learned through his training and now finds in nurturing his own students.

As to the Turkish branch of the vast makam family, he outlined the sequence for the five daily ezan, such as Saba for the dawn call, and a somewhat variable list for subsequent calls that includes Rast, Uşşâk, and Segah (see e.g. under this overview of “religious music” in Ottoman and early Republican Istanbul, and here).

As Aydin Hoca explained, while the maqams are important, they are only an opening. Inside the mosque, for the fourfold rekat (standing, bowing, and prostrations) the imam recites in four different maqams: Isfahan, Rast, Hüseyni, and Evic. In between the four sections, in order to “lighten” the maqams and give the congregation space to reflect, ilahi hymns are chanted.

Reminding us aptly of the wider theme of liturgical chant, the imam also notes the expression of dhikr in ayin communal gatherings at lodges such as Karagümrük Cerrahi tekke of the Halveti-Jerrahi order (many instances on YouTube under Jerrahi zikr e.g. this); here the worshippers accompany their group singing with frame-drums (bendir, def) and sometimes ney flute. He mentions the qaṣīda (e.g. here, and here), a three-part form with opening, a more expansive central section, and a calming conclusion; again, between sections they may add ilahi in various soulful moods.

Aydin Hoca stresses feeling. He often listens to early ezan recordings, “to reconfigure and order my mind.” Whereas some Muslim listeners lament “bad” or “ugly” voices, he has a more benign view, since all voices are given by Allah. But as he says, there are uneducated voices.

The muezzin are careful about the volume of the ezan: the mic should be neither too close nor too distant, not too loud or piercing; the sound must be natural. The broadcast of the Kuzguncuk ezan is linked to the central transmission of Kadıköy district. Aydin Bey decides when he wants to recite live; he often does so to keep his voice in practice. On Fridays he always chants live.

As to the ezan in the media, “everyone may recite the ezan, but first he has to be heard and recognised by the muezzin/imam.” The vocal style isn’t alien to daily life; it’s commonly adapted by pop singers. Aydin Bey considers Arabesk star İbrahim Tatlıses an important voice:

Further questions are addressed in the documentary Muezzin (Sebastian Brameshuber, 2009), based around a kind of Pop Idol competition for ezan—here’s a trailer:

Here’s an early rural fantasy from the iconic trans singer Bülent Ersoy, answering the plea of an ailing villager:

The call to prayer may be performed alternately by two muezzin (çifte ezan, double ezan), not only from different mosques (quite rare in Istanbul, though it may be heard at Sultanahmet and Üsküdar), but even from the same mosque. Here’s an instance of the latter from Izmir:

Here’s another video (which a BTL comment suggests comes from Ankara rather than Istanbul), with father and son declaiming:

And here’s a popular TV contest with çifte ezan:

* * *

The message of the text and the act of dhikr are primary; as in other sacred traditions, zooming in on the use of pitches in the various scales, and on melismatic decoration, may be largely the preserve of the muezzin—even if such details are at the heart of the ezan‘s efficacity. Its varied delivery deserves to be appreciated; clearly many of the faithful do so, rather than allowing it to become part of the aural wallpaper.

A with Kadir's mum

Augusta with community leader Saliha, visiting from İskenderun in the far south.

Curious about what the ezan means to different types of İstanbullus, I suggested a little project to Augusta. With her precious gift of rapport (cf. Bruce Jackson, Antoinet Schimmelpenninck), she relishes interacting with people in all walks of life, chatting easily with labourers, simit vendors, taxi drivers, intellectuals; pious Muslims, as well as Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Kurdish İstanbullus; men and women, old and young… Ours was a tiny sample, but I was impressed by their firm opinions on the topic; no-one merely takes the ezan for granted.

Barber Murat, and simit vendor Irfan.

Taxi driver Serkan, around 50, from Kayseri: “The ezan is imperative, denoting order. Of course I love it, as do all Muslims!” Still, “not everyone has a good voice! Not everyone can recite the ezan, I can tell you! But they recite with the voice Allah gave them. Whether it is beautiful or not does not matter. It is our call.” He feels a difference between the different makam, but is not aware of them. His wife prays five times a day, and he has started to join her a few times a week.

Another taxi driver, around 60, commented, “There is no voice so honourable as the ezan. It is the wisdom and blessing of Allah, bringing confidence.” For him the ezan “opens the heart, changes one’s outlook on the world, bringing people to their senses, to find peace”. For a simit vendor from Kastamonu it denotes honour, respect, reverence. As a 28-year-old cleaner commented, the ezan is a reminder that we have a conscience, an opportunity to ask for forgiveness, to remember any wrong-doings, and to be thankful, opening a door so that abundance and blessings may enter the home.

A Kuzguncuk barber (49) speaks with pride of his local imam Aydin Hoca reciting the ezan for the ceremony after his own birth and those of his children and grandchildren.

All mentioned the dawn ezan, finding it soothing, welcoming, a blessing, setting intention at the opening to the day. And any music that is playing must be stopped during the ezan; it is even “sinful” to play music on the radio or TV then.

Despite Aydin Hoca’s enlightened view, themes that emerged include a distaste for “ugly” reciting, and for the “cacophony” that results when nearby muezzin fail to listen to each other; the poor quality of some loudspeakers; and the “centralised” broadcasts, which are at least dependable.

* * *

Among other regions, note the SOAS “Sounding Islam in China” project, notably here (as in Germany or the UK, contrasting with societies where Islam is the dominant culture). For Gregorian and other traditions, see Chant and beyond, as well as A cappella singing. For free-tempo preludes, click here—notably the alap of dhrupad, star exhibit in my series on north Indian raga.


[1] For more, see e.g. Scott Marcus, “The Muslim call to prayer” in The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol.6). A good introduction to various styles of vocal liturgy just further south in Aleppo is the CD

  • Syrie: muezzins d’Alep, chants religieux de l’Islam (Ocora, 1992), with notes by Christian Poché. It opens with a solo adhan sung by Sabri Moudallal (1918–2006) (listen here; playlists devoted to Sabri Moudallal, largely featuring concert groups, including the Ensemble Al Kindi, are here and here).
    Indeed, the CD features further devotional songs led by the qāriʾ Reader of the Qur’an. Following the solo free-tempo qaṣīda is the choral muwashshah hymn, accompanied by frame-drums (listen here). The disc also includes instances of salawāt prayer and du’a’ invocation.

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”.

The Greek–Turkish population expulsions

SmyrnaSource: Robert Gewarth, The vanquished: why the First World War failed to end.

Following the ethnic strife of the late Ottoman period, the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, and the 1915 Armenian genocide came the massive forced population expulsions between Greece and Turkey—among the most disturbing instances of ethnic cleansing in modern history.

Of many studies, I’ve been reading the excellent

  • Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger: how mass expulsion forged modern Greece and Turkey (2006), reviewed e.g. here.

Throughout the book, Clark distinguishes political decisions and the experiences of those who were affected by those decisions, detailing both. He provides a useful roundup of sources.

The population “exchange” across the Aegean was still based on the Ottoman concepts of Christians and Muslims taking precedence over the modern nationalist categories of Greeks and Turks. It

was taken as proof that it was possible, both practically and morally, to undertake large exercises in ethnic engineering, and proclaim them a success. […] The temptation to use such methods is especially strong in certain types of political or geopolitical situation. For example, it can arise where one form of imperial authority (from Soviet communism to British colonial rule) is collapsing or when a new nationalist power wants to consolidate its rule; or when a new strategic order is being created in the aftermath of war.

And quite soon,

whatever they may have felt about being deported to another country, the Christians of Anatolia and the Muslims of Greece were—at least superficially—remoulded as Greeks and Turks respectively.

Despite the Helsinki accords of 1975, urging respect for the human and cultural rights of citizens and for borders, the lasting effects of the Lausanne treaty remain all too clear. Clark often alludes to more recent traumas, such as World War Two and its aftermath, the 1990s’ Balkan wars, and Northern Ireland. As he notes, while “the liberal westerner” recoils from the notion of forced population transfers based on religious faith, “the modern world is far from honest or consistent”.

* * *

Under the authoritarian roof of the Ottoman empire, religious and ethnic groups had been obliged to coexist. When that roof collapsed, new terms of coexistence could not be found, and people had to flee for their lives. Neither side had a monopoly of cruelty.

From 1912, as Greece gained territory in the Balkan wars, Muslims became a significant part of its population. Refugees from the conflict also exacerbated tensions in Anatolia.

It has been estimated that about 20% of the population of Anatolia died violently during the last ten years of the Ottoman empire’s existence: some 2.5 million Muslims, up to 800,000 Armenians, and 300,000 Greeks. To put it another way, a third of the Christian population and one eighth of the Muslim population had been killed, making the Ottoman empire a far more rural, and Islamic place; its population was now at least 90% Muslim, up from 80% before the decade of mutual slaughter began.

In the 1922 population exchange, around 400,000 Muslims and at least 1.2 million Greek Orthodox Christians were relocated.

For certain parts of Turkey, the departure of the Christians meant the loss of virtually all traders and entrepreneurs, as well as most professional people and skilled craftsmen. In those parts of Anatolia where commercial life was once heavily dominated by Christians, there is still a sense that the local economy has never recovered.

Greece was affected more by an influx than by an exodus. In many of its northern regions, and in certain districts of Athens, the population is still mainly of “Asia Minor” stock.

The trauma is still visible in the landscape:

All over Greece and Turkey, you can see the physical remnants of a world whose component parts seem to have been broken apart, suddenly and with great violence.

In the early 21st century there were still elderly people who recalled a time when those half-ruined buildings still functioned properly. But even then, that history had long fallen silent.

What the Lausanne negotiators wanted

—and this was not an ignoble desire—was an arrangement that would be durable and minimise the risk of further war, either in the immediate future or in a subsequent generation.

The treaty

was supposed to be the cornerstone of a settlement that would leave both sides stable and satisfied. But the separation was more than just an endorsement of something which had happened already; it was a cause of pain as well as a response to pain. […]

Not everything about the vanished world was good, and the circumstances in which it vanished were often so appalling that almost anything which followed came as a relief. […] Moving to a new place is on balance a lesser sorrow than being killed in one’s native country.

In one sense “physical separation seemed, and in some cases actually was, the best guarantee of survival”. Yet

when the Aegean peoples were prised apart, each lost a part of its own identity, and hence lost the ability to understand itself.

* * *

Chapter 1 discusses the fates of Smyrna and Ayvalik. The catastrophe of Smyrna in 1922–23 has been much studied; it makes a stark opening to Robert Gewarth’s book The vanquished: why the First World War failed to end. Following an exodus of Pontian and Ionian Greeks since 1914, from May 1919 a Greek expeditionary force took control of the city, where Muslims, Jews, Armenians, and Greek Orthodox Christians had lived together more or less peacefully for centuries. By now the population of Smyrna was swollen by desperate refugees from further east. But as the Greek force was driven out, over a fortnight in September 1922 around 30,000 Greeks and Armenians were slaughtered. The victors renamed the city Izmir.

Clark devotes most of the chapter to the fate of the port of Ayvalik further north, whose thriving population was almost entirely Greek. They welcomed the arrival of Turkish troops with music and dancing, duped into supposing that the occupation would be benign. But the evacuations and massacres soon began.

The first arrivals to replace the Greek population of Ayvalik were Muslim deportees from the islands of Mytilene (just west) and Crete (further south), where Clark pursues the story. He explores the troubled history of the Christian and Muslim populations of Crete, and the effect of the population exchange. As elsewhere, the Muslim arrivals in Ayvalik and the Christians deported to Crete found it hard to adapt to their new homes.

Chapter 2, “The road to Lausanne”, discusses the deal between Eleftherios Venizelos and Mustafa Kemal, brokered by British foreign secretary Lord Curzon and Fridtjof Nansen of the League of Nations, a combination of necessary evil and political self-interest. The equation was further complicated by anxieties over Bulgaria, where population exchanges had also taken place.

In Chapter 3 Clark explores the fates of the port of Samsun on the Black Sea and the town of Drama northeast of Salonika. Samsun had had a thriving Pontic Greek community, swollen first by Muslim refugees from the Balkan wars and now by desperate Christian refugees from the mountain villages.

Muslims once made up a significant part of the population of Drama, but in the expulsion they were largely replaced by Christians, including refugees from Samsun. Clark learns more about the Pontic background from diligent local historians, one of whom documented the rich Pontic traditions of theatre, folk poetry, and fables preserved in Drama in a kind of time-warp, making

careful studies of the fiddlers, the priests, the amateur midwives, and the pruveyors of folk medicine who peopled his childhood and kept alive the memories of a place about 900 miles to the east.

Chapter 4 returns to the terms of Lausanne, exploring how exceptions were agreed through complex diplomatic negotiations. Greek Thrace remained home to many Muslims. In Constantinople the Orthodox community was exempted from the expulsions, with over 100,000 Greeks still living there in 1923. So despite the squalid camps struggling to receive refugees in transit, at first the city’s own Greek population remained largely intact (only later did their numbers dwindle, with the punitive wealth tax of 1942, major rioting in 1955, and expulsions in 1964; today only around 3,000 Greeks remain in Istanbul). For the Cappadocia region, which had remained largely free of ethnic conflict, it seemed that a deal might be reached to exempt the Orthodox Christians from relocation, but in the end they too were expelled.

While traditional Ottoman society, with its peculiar, arbitrary mixture of cruelty and fairness, had allowed Christians and Muslims to live together, the modern states which were emerging from the Ottoman world would not.

Trebizond 1

In Chapter 5, “Hidden faiths, hidden ties” (cf. Hidden nation, for the continuing Armenian presence in Turkey) Clark returns to the Black Sea to discuss the fate of Ottoman Trebizond (now Trabzon), which thrived on its silver mines and trade with Tsarist Russia. Again Clark finds a web of relationships between Greeks and Turks.

Involved in this network were bishops, businessmen, politicians, soldiers, and gangsters.

The dichotomy was never clear-cut: for several generations there had been a community of Crypto-Christians, apparently Muslim Turks but secretly Orthodox Greeks. Clark notes subtle but crucial differences between the fortunes of west and east Pontus, the experiences of the latter being marginally less traumatic—partly because of a more conciliatory Orthodox bishop in Trebizond. Yet the Armenians suffered particularly badly there. The Trebizond Greek community was expelled in the winter of early 1923. First they were shipped to the disease-ridden camps of Constantinople; those that survived were deported to their notional homeland in Greece.

Trebizond 2

Chapter 6, “Out of Constantinople” looks at the plight of the new arrivals. Clark gives an example:

A ship arriving at Pyraeus from Samsun […] in January 1923 has carried 2,000 passengers. Of these 1,600 were stricken with typhus, smallpox, or cholera, and two of the three doctors on board were seriously ill.

He cites a report from the island of Macronissi by Esther Lovejoy, director of the American Women’s Hospitals agency:

Refugee conditions indescribable. People, mostly women and children, without a country, rejected of all the world; unable to speak the Greek language; herded and driven like animals from place to place; crowded into damp holes and hovels; shortage of food, fuel, water, bedding, and clothing; cold, hungry, and sick…

Refugees now made up nearly 40% of the population of Athens, and 48% of that of the Aegean islands. All this gravely tested the limits of Greek hospitality. As Henry Morgenthau continued diplomatic negotiations, international aid helped the Greek government manage its influx of refugees.

Turkey handled its own crisis with less external support; the way it handled the transport and reception of Muslims from Greece, theoretically more humane, turned out to be disorderly too. Chapter 7, “Saying farewell to Salonika”, shows the city’s cosmopolitan mix of cultures and religions, with Sephardic Jews comprising its main ethnic group. Salonika had only been in Greek hands since 1912. The persecution of Muslims there was intermittent, but by 1922 ships were carrying refugees in both directions.

Again Clark finds exceptions to the silence of official propaganda surrounding the trauma of disruption. In Chapter 8, “Adapting to Anatolia”, he finds a chronicler of the exchange around Tuzla, southeast of Istanbul, where locals and newcomers adapted with difficulty, and memories stayed suppressed—“tales of dislocation, nostalgia, and in most cases successful integration, albeit at a high personal cost”. Among the arrivals from northern Greece were adherents of the Bektashi order, who followed a mystical form of Islam that was regarded with suspicion by mainstream Muslims.

The status of the relocated population played a significant role in local political manoeuverings, and has continued to do so.

Between 1913 and 1923 the proportion of non-Muslims in Anatolia fell from 20% to 2%. This reflected the death or expulsion of all but a handful of the two main Christian communities, the Greeks and Armenians. The remaining Christians consisted of the 120,000 Greeks who were permitted to stay in Istanbul and about 65,000 Armenians; a total of less than 200,000 compared with about 3 million before the decade of war. The country was also deprived of the great majority of its entrepreneurs, merchants, middlemen, and even skilled labourers.

By 1928, 20% of the Greek population were refugees.

refugees

Chapter 9, “The pursuit of clarity”, outlines events through the years following the expulsions, a story that continues in Chapter 10, “The price of success”. In Greece the bitter conflicts between left and right partially replaced the former antagonism between refugees and locals.

So any overall analysis of the population exchange has to wrestle with a truth which is awkward from a liberal, modern point of view: in its own perverse terms, the population exchange “worked”—in the sense that it ultimately, after many difficulties, contributed to the forging of a more or less homogenous Greek nation-state whose citizens recognised each other’s right to exist. Moreover, the calculation that that informed the Lausanne project on both sides of the Aegean—that a common religion would make possible the creation of a common national consciousness—seems to have been borne out. […] If the two countries are “imagined communities” […], they are powerfully imagined ones.

As ever, Clark goes on to qualify this, adducing the struggle of the Turkish Kurds—also partly a consequence of Lausanne. He notes salient differences between the nationalist projects of Greece and Turkey, and the role of religion. Naturally he queries the notion of “success” based on authoritarian methods, and remains cautious in assessing the prospects for continuing equilibrium, both across the Aegean and around the world.

Today’s challenge is to ensure that these new understandings of identity and belonging do not exact such a high price in blood as the previous ones did.

Here’s a documentary from Al Jazeera:

  * * *

Both the immediate logistics and the consequences of the expulsions caused immense suffering. The relocations posed severe social and economic challenges in both countries. Yet Clark observes the disjunct between simplistic political ideology and a popular yearning to reconnect.

Mingled with the memories of terror and betrayal, feelings and recollections persisted which somehow transcended the Greek–Turkish divide; personal friendships, commercial partnerships, a sense of common participation in a single world, constituted by landscape, language, music, food, and all the trivia of everyday life.

Apart from private, domestic memory,

Because diplomatic and military relations have so often been so strained, it is above all in the world of culture—novels, films, and songs—that the two peoples have felt free to express the depth of their commonality, and to question the official ideology which relegates them to separate, unconnected worlds.

The popular music scene of Istanbul was still ethnically diverse in the 1920s, a variety that continued in the diaspora. More recently, in the light of a certain rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, it has become popular to bridge the shared Ottoman heritage, both among the descendants of the deportees and in projects such as those of Giovanni de Zorzi in Venice or groups at SOAS; see e.g. Eleni Kallimopoulou, Paradosiaká: music, meaning and identity in modern Greece (2009), Chapter 6.

Twice a stranger cuts through simplistic nationalist agendas, constantly highlighting the lives of real people; the story of the expulsions, like that of the Armenian genocide, has difficult lessons for us today.

See also Midnight at the Pera Palace.

Chinoperl

Cperl site

CHINOPERL, a US-based association for the study of oral and performing traditions of China, was founded in 1969 by a distinguished group including Yuen Ren Chao, Harold Shadick, and Cyril Birch; notable figures such as Rulan Chao Pian and Kate Stevens continued the initiative.

Cperl

The main focus of CHINOPERL is regional traditions of narrative singing (shuoshu 说书, shuochang 说唱, quyi 曲艺) and drama, both staged and unstaged. The recently-revised website contains a contents list for back issues of the journal, with articles by scholars such as Wilt Idema, Victor Mair, Bell Yung, David Johnson, Mark Bender, and Vibeke Børdahl.

Whereas CHINOPERL tends to stress historical and textual research, on my own site posts featuring narrative-singing have a more ethnographic bent (notably for ritual), with introductions to local genres around

Note the valuable archive recordings in the CD sets here. And of course there’s a wealth of sites in Chinese, which I won’t even attempt to survey now…

Epiphany in Istanbul

In church 1

Sanctification of Water ritual, Agios Giorgios, Kuzguncuk.

To follow Bach’s Epiphany:

Having blithely ignored Christmas in London, I arrived in Istanbul again just in time for Armenian and Greek Orthodox Christmas on 6th January.

The Armenian faithful in Istanbul have somehow managed to maintain their liturgical traditions despite over a century of persecution. We went up the hill in Kuzguncuk to attend a Mass for Christmas Eve in a sparsely-attended minor church.

It’s also Epiphany (Theophania) for the Greek Orthodox Church, observed with the agiasmos Sanctification of Water ritual, when the Bishop throws a wooden cross into the Bosphorus to be retrieved by swimmers—a ritual performed at several sites around Istanbul (for background on the religious life of Istanbul Greeks, see e.g. here). But the core ritual is the lengthy service that precedes it, which we attended at the lovely little Agios Georgios church in Kuzguncuk—next to the synagogue, on the other side of the road down from the main Greek church Agios Panteleimonas.

In Istanbul today Greeks are far fewer than Armenians, but this was an impressive service, with a quartet of liturgists punctuating the recitation of the priests, with jangling thurifer.

Left, the head priest blesses worshippers with light;
right, preparing to sprinkle blessed water on the congregation with a sprig of herbs.

In church 2

On right, dove awaiting release to the heavens (and an ICONIC choice of jacket).

on road

We all followed them across the road through the ferry station to the shore, where two pious swimmers retrieved the wooden cross from the waters; meanwhile a dove (representing the Holy Spirit) had waited patiently during the service before being released to the heavens (cf. Messiaen).

Left, at Fener (source); right, at Kuzguncuk,
with swimmer presenting cross that he has retrieved from the Bosphorus.

Our Greek friends note the symbolism of fish, Ichthys, and Jesus as fisher of people, as well as abundance. China makes the same connection between yu 魚 fish and yu 餘 abundance; and most large-scale rituals (both for temple fairs and funerals) there include segments for Fetching or Inviting Water (qushui, qingshui, and so on; see e.g. our film, from 41.06).

Last year Covid rules prevented the Sanctification of Water being held in Greece, but it was observed by the Greek community in Istanbul.

The topic might lead us to consider ayazma holy springs, healing, and the wider context of Holy Water in Eastern Christianity and other faiths. And spare a thought for the beleaguered Catholic minorities in China, including Gaoluo.

With thanks to Kuzguncuk friends!

The Armenian genocide

awaiting execution

The 1915 Armenian genocide, [1] affirmed by scholars and historians around the world, remains bitterly contested by the government of Turkey, which (like that of China) has long propounded collective amnesia. Clarity on the “Armenian question” is often bedevilled by the technical issue of whether the assaults constituted genocide as defined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944.

mapSource: wiki.

Under the roof of the Ottoman empire, religious and ethnic groups were obliged to coexist—as in Anatolia, where Muslims lived alongside Orthodox Greek and Armenian neighbours. But inter-ethnic violence increased through the 19th century; from 1895 Armenians were frequently the targets of atrocities. With the Ottoman roof crumbling, the 1912–13 Balkan Wars reduced its territory and heightened tensions in Anatolia.

After the outbreak of World War One, by 1915 the Ottoman authorities in Constantinople, anxious to forestall rebellion, executed and deported prominent Armenian leaders and disarmed Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman army. In eastern Anatolia (then still home to Greek Orthodox Christians, besides Turkish and Kurdish Muslims), as Armenians were deported away from the Russian front, around one million were starved, robbed, raped, and slaughtered on death marches to the desert. Armenian assets were expropriated, and the surviving women and children forcibly Islamified, erasing Armenian names and culture. Further massacres followed in 1916. International exposure and scrutiny were helpless to stem the tide. Later the genocide was much admired by the Nazis.

deport

Deportation.

Andrew Finkel (in Turkey: what everyone needs to know, chapter 5) offers a cogent overview of the issues.

On the surface it might seem strange that Turkey would stake so much of its own credibility defending a predecessor empire whose immediate legacy it had itself disowned. Yet it has become part of the catechism of today’s Republic that what happened in 1915 was part of the exigencies of war and not premeditated.

He gamely outlines the Turkish case, that

Turks were themselves the initial victims of ethnic cleansing. […] Cholera and famine (as well as attacks by Kurdish irregulars) also took their toll on the files of refugees. If blame is to be apportioned, the argument runs, it falls on Armenian revolutionaries who disturbed centuries of coexistence between Muslims and Armenians.

With the academic community and world opinion unconvinced that the many wrongs suffered by Turkish Muslims made a right, he explains the niceties of international legal wranglings and the ramifications of genocide resolutions. And he observes changing attitudes within Turkey, with more open discussion, and growing interest in the contributions of Armenians to the Ottoman empire.

Cetin cover

The 2004 publication of Fethiye Çetin’s My grandmother: an Armenian-Turkish memoir (one of the five books on the genocide chosen by Thomas de Waal, author of Great catastrophe) “confronted Turks with the Armenians in their midst, both dead and alive”, raising awareness of forced assimilation.

Çetin’s grandmother (1905–2000) only began revealing her story in 1975. Çetin gave her death announcement to the Istanbul newspaper Agos:

Her name was Heranuş. She was the granddaughter of Herabet Gadaryan, and the only daughter of İsguhı and Hovannes Gadaryan.

She passed a happy childhood in the village of Habab, near Palu, until she reached the fourth grade.

Then, suddenly, she was thrown into the painful times about which she would say, “May those days vanish never to return”.

Heranuş lost her entire family and never saw them again. She was given a new name, to live in a new family.

She forgot her mother tongue and her religion, and though she did not once in her life complain about this, she never ever forgot her name, her village, her mother, her father, her grandfather or her close relations. She lived until the age of 95, always hoping that she might be able to see them and embrace them again one day. Perhaps it was this hope that allowed her to live so long; until her very last days, her mind remained sharp. Last week, we lost Heranuş, our grandmother, and sent her to her eternal resting place. We are hoping that this announcement might reach the relations (our relations) that we were never able to find while she was alive, that they may share our grief, in the hope that “those days may vanish, never to return”.

Cetin family(Clockwise from left to right.)

As the translator Maureen Freely comments In her Introduction, this history has been concealed from four generations of Turkish schoolchildren. The book bears witness, giving voice to those whom history has silenced.

Secret nation

The persistence of Armenians in Anatolia today, “the leftovers of the sword”, is explored in a wonderful book, full of rich ethnographic observation:

  • Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation: the hidden Armenians of Turkey (2018).

For Armenians outside Turkey, the clock had stopped in 1915. Until the mid-2000s, most of the Diaspora did not know that there were Armenians left in the ancient provinces of the Ottoman Empire—the conquered territories of Western Armenia and Cilicia. The terrified Armenians that remained would still be subject to daily humiliations, killings, deportations, and armed attacks by the Turkish army and irregular formations, both Turkish and Kurdish, until at least the late 1980s in some parts of the country’s interior. For these Armenians, genocide by other means continued for another century.

In fiction, an engaging appearance of the elephant in the room is Elif Shafak’s The bastard of Istanbul (2006), using the stories of a characterful Istanbul family of women and their teenage daughter Asya, who bonds with the Armenian-American Armanoush, stepdaughter of the family’s estranged brother, as she comes in search of her heritage. I find the novel highly effective in presenting nuanced views through the voices of a polyphonic cast with their seemingly antagonistic stereotypes.

Shafak cover

In the Turkish Penal Code the crime of “insulting Turkishness” went back to Article 159, introduced in 1926. In 2005, concerned over the new openness of discussion, the state had replaced it with the controversial Article 301, bringing a slew of prosecutions against several journalists and authors. Written in English, The bastard of Istanbul soon became a bestseller in Turkish, and despite—or perhaps because of—its spirit of reconciliation, Shafak’s book was among the targets of Article 301. While the case against her was dropped, like that of Orhan Pamuk, a prosecution against the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was upheld, and he was soon assassinated by a young ultranationalist, giving rise to popular protests.

Indeed, Hrant Dink was the editor of Agos, where Heranuş Gadaryan’s death notice had appeared, and it was Fethiye Çetin who acted as Dink’s lawyer; she has continued to represent his family.

Having created a climate of fear, by 2008 Article 301 was amended to discourage abuse, but since 2017 it has been invoked again for other purposes (see also Fatma Yavuz).

This 2005 documentary on the Armenian genocide is from ARTE:


[1] Sources are voluminous. I haven’t attempted to read perhaps the most exhaustive of many studies, Raymond Kevorkian, The Armenian genocide: a complete history (English translation 2011, from the 2006 French original), running to 1,029 pages. Wiki makes a useful introduction (cf. Racism in Turkey); among websites, see e.g. here and here.

For a thorough recent study, see Fatma Müge Göçek, Denial of violence: Ottoman past, Turkish present, and collective violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 (2016), with sections on Imperial denial of origins of violence; Young Turk denial of the act of violence; Early Republican denial of actors of violence; and Late Republican denial of responsibility for violence. She explores the wider issue of “Why do states and societies insist of denying the acts of collective violence embedded in their pasts and present?” (e.g. Holocaust denial, Native America, Russia, and China, among many cases).

Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, The thirty-year genocide: Turkey’s destruction of its Christian minorities, 1894–1924 (2019) encourages us to see the wider picture, though some of its detail has been challenged.

Roundup for 2021!

Emma Leylah

As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.

Some essential posts:

I’m going to emulate Stella Gibbons and award *** to some other *MUST READ!* posts too…

China: on the Li family Daoists, recent and older posts are collected in

and it’s always worth reminding you to watch our film

Elsewhere,

Tributes to three great sinologists:

The beleaguered cultures of the

  • Uyghurs (posts collected here) and
  • Tibetans (posts collected here), including

I’ve begun a growing series on Turkey (with a new tag for west/Central Asia):

Among this year’s additions to the jazz, pop, punk tags are

WAM:

Bach (added to the roundup A Bach retrospective):

as well as

On “world music” and anthropology:

On gender (category here, with basic subheads):

Germany:

Italy:

Britain (see also The English, home and abroad), and the USA:

More on stammering:

On a lighter note:

Even just for this last year, I realise there’s a lot to read there, but do click away on all the links! And I can’t resist reminding you of some of my earlier favourites, notably

Ma Yuan

Not such a white Christmas: Balthasar

Bosch

Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Talking of colour, in north Europe we no longer get so much snow, but our Christmas really is very white—celebrated by nativities with white people in fancy dress, based on stories by the genteel British names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Welcome as is the growing presence in our schools of children from the Middle East, who could imagine that is just where all this took place?

And even once we recognise this, the tableau still isn’t monocultural—as illustrated by the story of the Three Magi. As wiki observes,

The single biblical account in Matthew simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed “wise men” (μάγοιmágoi) visits him in a house (οἰκίανoikian), not a stable, with only “his mother” mentioned as present.

In early sources the term magus refers to Persian sorcerers/astrologers; the three were first named as Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior in a Greek manuscript from 500CE.

Jonathan Jones describes their changing representations in art. Although the Venerable Bede described Balthasar as black in the 8th century, very few images depicted him thus before 1400; but in the Renaissance, representations proliferated along with growing awareness of other races then being subjugated, serving to illustrate Christianity’s powers of conversion.

Durer
Dürer, The Adoration of the Magi, 1504.

Another article refers to the research of Paul Kaplan, Cord Whitaker, and Kristen Collins with Bryan Keene. As Geraldine Heng noted:

The topos of blackness becomes in Europe a reflexive gesture denoting the exotic and the foreign. […] By this time, courts, kings, and nobles played with blackness for purposes of spectacle in performances of masques, pageantry, processions, and balls.

This leads to a discussion of the use of blackface in Epiphany and Three Kings’ Day parades (cf. the Bacup Morris dancers).

Of course, we can’t expect historical authenticity from religion. Acculturation is subject to constant change. Religious art too reflects changing perceptions and agendas.

Cf. the widespread image of the Black Madonna. See also Esther Chadwick’s review of the collection Black in Rembrandt’s time, focusing on the Afro-Atlantic community in Amsterdam.

Turning to 1730s’ Leipzig, among the constant wonders of Bach’s Christmas oratorio, The Journey of the Magi (Part Five) opens with an exhilarating chorus in which the fiddles get as close to bluegrass noodling as you can in early music—as if the Magis’ stellar Satnav had whimsically chosen a route to Bethlehem via Appalachia:

Part Six goes on to portray The Adoration of the Magi.

Messiaen‘s depictions of the story are also wondrous. On a lighter note, my post on The Three Wise Men of Daoist ritual studies includes a cameo from Monty Python (“We were led by a star!” “Led by a bottle, more like!”).For the unpromising chromaticisms of I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, click here.

Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus

Vingt regards CD cover

Continuing my series on Olivier Messiaen (starting here, with most links), and following last Christmas’s offering of La nativité du Seigneur, I’m finally immersing myself in the monumental Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus—composed in 1944 after Messiaen’s release from POW camp and during the liberation of Paris.

I find Joanna MacGregor’s notes a useful companion, supplementing the evocative images that Messiaen provides in the score with her own insights as a performer—pointing out flashes of boogie-woogie, Tibetan trumpets, calypso, the fluttering of angels’ wings… And regarding the birdsong that constantly decorates Messiaen’s spiritual vision, as MacGregor observes, in their proximity to God, birds can be gentle, sleepy, cheeky, melodic, hilarious, quarrelsome, triumphant. Too bad Messiaen never got to Spread the Word on Twitter Twitter

He composed the cycle for Yvonne Loriod—her complete recording, with score, is here. Among other pianists, Jean-Rodolphe Kars has a particular affinity with Messiaen’s spirituality, as is clear from his testimony, written after he was ordained in 1981—here’s his wondrous live performance from 1976, on the eve of his conversion:

Messiaen details the themes that pervade the work:

  • Thème de Dieu, in the unifying key of F sharp major, further enriched by Messiaen’s favourite extatique added-sixth chord
  • Thème de l’amour mystique
  • Thème de l’étoile et de la croix
  • Thème d’accords.

Theme of God

Thème de Dieu at the opening.

In style, images, and material, the cycle constantly foreshadows Turangalîla, both opulent and ascetic. While all the visions are enthralling, I particularly relish

  • 1 Regard du Père—hypnotic, with “gently reiterated C sharps in the right hand giving us the first glimpse of the gamelan”
  • 5 Regard du Fils sur le Fils—contemplation adorned with birdsong
  • 6 Par Lui tout a été fait—virtuosity culminating in the Thème de Dieu, victorieux et agité, combining with the Thème de l’amour mystique
  • 10 Regard de l’Esprit de joie—equivalent to the exhilarating 5th movement of Turangalîla, “a clash of Western jazziness with Hindu dance rhythms”; here it is played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard:

  • 15 Le baiser de l’enfant-Jésus—“the bringing-together of spirituality and sensuality: of Roman Catholic iconography and Eastern eroticism”
  • 19 Je dors, mais mon coeur veille—the heart of the meditation, basking in F sharp major; played here by Joanna MacGregor:

—leading to the massive finale Regard de l’Église d’amour, which brings together “all the themes, angels, birds, bells, gongs, and tam-tams that we’ve heard in the previous two hours”.

Click here for a precious film of Messiaen himself improvising on the Nativity at the Saint-Trinité organ in 1985!

Turkey: what everyone needs to know

Belatedly keen to explore Turkish culture, I learned a lot from

  • Andrew Finkel, Turkey: what everyone needs to know (2012).

For all its populist Q&A format, it’s full of useful insights, constantly unpacking simplistic preconceptions while presenting a range of viewpoints both within Turkey and abroad, based on the author’s long experience as a journalist based in Istanbul.

Turkey AF

The chapters open with Historical background, summarising the legacy of the Ottoman empire—ethnic conflicts in the aftermath of World War One, the treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne leading to the foundation of modern Turkey with Atatürk’s Republic. Andy ponders the mixed record of Turkey’s measures to preserve the culture of the past: typically, alongside apparently impressive legislation, archeology clashes with ideology and the pecuniary demands of tourism and development, as the Ottoman heritage is Disneyfied.

The next chapter on Economy describes “a complex economy in its own right, but one well situated to become a conduit of goods and services between Europe and the resource-rich nations of the Middle East and the former Soviet Union”. He notes the profound inequalities between regions, with the eastern provinces accounting for less than 10% of the country’s economy; the flaws of state development projects, notably hydroelectric; the steady decline of agriculture; and the culture of complicity. As often, all this reminds me of China. Andy evokes the contrast between Istanbul and Ankara, with the former’s loss of political power doing nothing to damage its status as Turkey’s cultural and commercial capital.

Turkey in the world observes Turkey’s pivotal strategic position in global politics. Many in the West understand that

the choices facing Turkey are not Manichean, a clash of civilisations between East and West, but rather are based on a nuanced calculation of where the country’s best interests lie.

Andy outlines Turkey’s response to the end of the Cold War, 9/11 followed by the invasions of Iraq, and the Arab Spring; relations with the USA, Israel, and the EU; the war in Syria, human rights, and Cyprus.

Politics… and the military covers democracy, coups, more on human rights, nationalism, religious interests, the uneasy alliance between state and government, nepotism, the slow pace of reform, and (a topic on which he has particular authority) limits on press freedom.

The Introduction has already explained how the very concept of “Turkish” and “Turk” arose from the ashes of the Ottoman empire; and how the racial and linguistic term “Turkic” (Turcoman) is used in English for tribal peoples from Central Asia (some of whom migrated to what is now Turkey!)—a distinction not made in Turkish. Society and religion opens with a discussion of the role of Islam in public life, as the secular state wrestles to reconcile its avowed secular identity with Muslim values. Checks on Turkey becoming a fundamentalist state include a de facto diversity and tolerance among the people—although this is hardly put to the test, since Turkish-born non-Muslims now comprise only 1% of the population.

For all its claims to be a melting pot of civilisations and a mosaic of different cultures, Turkey has been continuously blindsided by the problem of accommodating its own ethnic diversity.

In religion, with non-Muslim minorities having dwindled severely since 1900, the promotion of “faith tourism” is highly selective, with monuments to Anatolia’s multi-confessional past merely vestigial. While the building of mosques proliferates, within Islam there are disparate groups, such as the Alevis, whose practice distances them from the mainstream.

The situation of the Kurds is the subject of a rather extensive discussion.

Ethnic solidarity with fellow Kurds across borders is often overshadowed by the concerns and politics of the countries in which Kurds actually find themselves.

In Turkey they are based in the southeast and east of the country, but Istanbul is “almost certainly the largest Kurdish city in the world”. While discussing the Turkish state’s campaign against the PKK (boosted by wider anti-terrorist sympathies after 9/11), the book observes that

Kurdish nationalism […] does at times appear to be a distorted reflection of the Turkish nationalism it opposes.

Not only is the whole region underdeveloped, but cross-border tensions are heightened by the movements of refugees.

In 1989 Eastern and Central Europe rejected Soviet-style totalitarianism and embraced a democratic ideal. Yet Turkey, which might have been expected to reap a dividend from the end of the Cold War, became more authoritarian. It became embroiled in a costly fight to suppress Kurdish insurrection and has in some measure been corrupted by it.

With the prospect of Greater Kurdistan ever remote, the Kurds’ search for greater political and cultural rights continues.

women skip

Photo: Selahattin Giz.

This is followed by a section on gender (see also here). On one hand, Atatürk is praised for having emancipated women, and legal reforms have continued, described by one campaigning NGO as succeeding in

safeguarding women’s rights, and bodily and sexual autonomy. […] All legal references to vague patriarchal constructs such as chastity, morality, shame, public customs, or decency have been eliminated and definitions of such crimes against women brought in line with global human rights norms. […] The new code […] brings progressive definitions and higher sentences for sexual crimes, criminalises marital rape; brings measures to prevent sentence reductions granted to perpetrators of honour killings, eliminates previously existing discrimination against non-virgin and unmarried women, criminalises sexual harrassment at the workplace and considers sexual assaults by security forces to be aggravated offences.

Yet, as elsewhere, “feminists are not as grateful to their male liberators as the official history would have them feel”. The shops and restaurants of central Istanbul cannot represent the general picture. Secularists have failed to tackle obstinate patriarchal attitudes. As to the sensitive question of headscarves,

many believe it is a right and obligation for pious women to cover their heads. Others see it as a deliberate affront and a symptom of creeping fundamentalism.

Some issues are explored in Kutluğ Ataman’s Women who wear wigs (2001), “part of a warning about recklessly attributing motives and categories”. This is followed by a section on the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and LGBT people in Turkey.

Finally, the vexed arguments surrounding the Armenian genocide are cogently summarised—a topic to which I devote a separate post.

All these questions have ramifications far beyond the borders of Turkey. The Conclusion offers some signs of hope, such as the public demonstrations (below) following the 2007 assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

Dink demo

Lastly, Andy provides a succinct list of further reading. Amidst the shifting picture, he’s well aware that constant updates are to be desired; but with its digestible style and thoughtful perspectives, the book makes a valuable overview.

For more on Turkey, see under Köcek in Kuzguncuk!, notably Midnight at the Pera Palace.

In memoriam Dan Overmyer

Dan x2

A sad recent loss is Daniel Overmyer (1935–2021), who devoted his career to the study of Chinese popular thought, religion, and culture (see this UBC tribute).

His work on the history of Chinese sects and “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷) since the Ming dynasty was further informed by fieldwork, first in Taiwan and later in mainland China. His early books include

    • Folk Buddhist religion: dissenting sects in late traditional China (1976)
    • The flying phoenix: aspects of chinese sectarianism in Taiwan (1986, with David K. Jordan
    • Precious volumes: an introduction to Chinese sectarian scriptures from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (1999).

Concerned to view the wider picture, in 2003 he edited a special issue of the China Quarterly entitled Religion in China, with articles by Ken Dean, Fan Lizhu, Paul Katz, Lai Chi-tim, Raoul Birnbaum, Dru Gladney, Richard Madsen, and others. Other useful surveys are

    • Local religion in north China in the twentieth century: the structure and organization of community rituals and beliefs (2009), with chapters on rain rituals, history and government, leadership and organisation, temple festivals, gods and temples, beliefs and values
    • Ethnography in China today: a critical assessment of methods and results (2009, with Shin-yi Chao), with thoughtful reviews of volumes in the series Studies in Chinese ritual and folklore and the ever-growing corpus of regional studies (see e.g. Dong Xiaoping’s review of field reports on west Fujian).

With Fan Lizhu 范丽珠, he was editor-in-chief of a useful four-volume series in Chinese on folk culture in rural Hebei, Huabei nongcun minjian wenhua yanjiu congshu 华北农村民间文化研究丛书 (2006–7).

In 2009 Philip Clart and Paul Crowe edited a festschrift:

  • The people and the Dao: new studies in Chinese religions in honour of Daniel L. Overmyer (introduction here).

* * *

Dan’s memoir, written for his grandchildren in 2010, is fascinating, full of detail—so please forgive me this brief summary, focusing on his engagement with China.

His father Elmer was an Evangelical missionary, assigned to China in 1940; so Dan’s first stay there began at the age of 5, when his parents took him to Hunan with his baby sister Mary Beth. They reached Changsha by a tortuous route. Vulnerable to Japanese raids, they had to flee, first to Hengyang and then to the smaller town of Youxian, where they visited Mount Nanyue.

Hunan 1943

Hunan, 1943.

They had to leave in a hurry in 1944, reaching India by plane via Kunming, and then by ship back to the USA; Elmer stayed behind for another year. Eventually they were reunited, setting up home in Hartford, Connecticut.

After the end of the war, they returned to Changsha in 1946, spending more time on Nanyue. By 1948 Dan was at boarding school in Hong Kong, where the rest of the family joined him in 1949 before travelling to Manila. By 1952 they were back in the States, ending up in Princeton; while the rest of the family embarked on another term in Manila, Dan attended college in Iowa.

Despite never having been inclined to follow in his father’s footsteps, he now felt drawn to religion, becoming a pastor in Chicago, engaging with social issues. As his interest turned towards the history of religions, he studied at the University of Chicago—the start of his work on Chinese religion. He married Estella in 1965.

In 1968 they went with their baby to Taipei, where Dan studied Chinese language, somewhat helped by his childhood memories of Hunan. The next year he resumed work for his PhD on “heretical” sects. Having conceived it as a historical subject, while in Taipei he happened to hear a group of Hall of Compassion sectarians (who venerate the creator goddess Wusheng laomu) performing a ritual—a formative experience that began leading him to enrich his library studies with fieldwork. With Estella Dan returned to the States in 1969, where he soon found a post at Oberlin. They returned to Taiwan in the summer of 1973, before Dan took up a position at UBC in Vancouver.

His first trip back to mainland China since his childhood came in 1978. In 1981 he went in search of sectarian manuscripts in Nanjing, Suzhou, and Shanghai, also returning to Nanyue. By this time scholars were just becoming aware that the PRC was not only accessible again but a rich field for the study of local ritual cultures (see e.g. here). While teaching in Hong Kong in 1997 he met John Lagerwey, who soon took him on a trip to Fujian to give him a glimpse of the vibrant ritual scene there. This inspired him to see if there was similar work being done in north China—a path he pursued after retiring in 2000, working with Chinese colleagues. Meanwhile his environmental concerns were reflected in his involvement with nature conservation projects in Vancouver.

I do recommend this warm, humane memoir.

* * *

Among other great sinologists who died this year are Kristofer Schipper and Jacques Pimpaneau.

A village pantheon: Liujing

liujing

Xue Yibing documenting the pantheon in the lantern tent
during our first visit to Liujing over New Year 1989.

Southwest of Beijing, just north of Yixian county-town, the main staging points en route to the Houshan mountain pilgrimage are the villages of Liujing and Matou, both of which have lively ritual associations.

Liujing pantheon huitou

The four leaders of the Liujing ritual association, 1995; left, Zhang Dejin.

Like other local communities throughout China, Liujing enthusiastically revived traditional religious observances in the wake of the Cultural Revolution—with liturgist Zhang Dejin (b. c1936) heading an energetic group of huitou association leaders.

Liujing maze 1989

Zhang Dejin (on yunluo gong-frame) leads the procession through the ritual maze,
New Year 1989.

We shouldn’t limit our attentions to the pantheons themselves; in the ritual tent they are surrounded by images of individual deities, and (for both calendrical rituals and funerals) such pantheons often appear with paintings of the Ten Kings of the Underworld (see e.g. Ritual images: Gaoluo, including a fine pantheon from 1930).

Liujing tent diagram 89

The New Year’s ritual tent, Liujing 1989. From Xue Yibing notes.

Top: paintings of
Tongtian jiaozhu—Dizang pusa—Pantheon—Houtu temporary palace—Taishang laojun;
“civil” and “martial” (melodic–percussion) tables for band on either side of altar table;
lower right: Ghost King painting.
(For another of Xue Yibing’s diagrams of ritual tents, see Ritual groups of Xiongxian, §1).

Liujing’s Ghost King painting is dated 1982, 12th moon 15th, so perhaps we can assume that the pantheon was painted around the same time, soon after the revival. The pantheon depicts 111 figures; while we can often identify the deities shown on such pantheons by consulting with senior villagers, in this case the painter has obligingly given many of them captions.

But such painters were not always highly literate; this one had only a basic grasp of Chinese characters, and not only are many of the captions miswritten but misattributions are common too. Older paintings from a more literate milieu may be desirable, such as those to be admired in museums and galleries; but they are removed from their social context—what is valuable here is that the image is part of a living local tradition (to be sure, ritual practice in south China may preserve a, um, higher level of culture).

Finding the pantheon on display in the ritual tent on our first visit to Liujing during the New Year’s rituals in 1989, Xue Yibing listed the gods depicted.

Liujing pantheon composite HT

My photos here are from the 3rd-moon Houtu festival in 1995. With the help of Hannibal Taubes (who also created the composite image above), we can characterise the main deities of each row:

  • 1: Ancient culture-heroes/ancestral progenitors, flanked by astral deities (sun, moon, and so on)
  • 2: Major deities of the three religions
  • 3: The Jade Emperor and his attendants
  • 4: Bodhisattvas: Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin) flanked by attendants; Mañjuśrī, and Samantabhadra, plus figures from popular Buddhist myth
  • 5: The Three Heavenly Officials, plus deities involved with geomancy, including the directional gods, gods of the earth, and of wealth
  • 6: Dragon Gods and other gods involved in precipitation.
    Here “Wusheng laomu” (3rd from left) may appear to be a miswritten form of 無生老母, the creator divinity in “White Lotus” sectarian worship, still common in this area (see again The Houshan Daoists). But since it’s quite common for an illiterate artist to draw the figures and someone else to come along and write the labels, Hannibal wonders if some of the minor characters have been mislabeled, as here; this deity is more likely to be another rain god. (I guess it would be too fanciful of me to suggest that Wusheng laomu, then perhaps still too sensitive a figure to be publicly proclaimed, is being smuggled in with an ingenious disguise?! We need to go back and ask!)

Liujing pantheon 4

6th row, centre: “Wusheng laomu”—miswritten, and bearded!

  • 7: Goddesses presiding over health: Houtu, and the Goddess of Taishan (Bixia yuanjun); the goddesses of fertility and eyesight, and so on
  • 8: The Medicine King and other deities
  • 9: Lord Guan, Zhou Cang, and Guan Ping (from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms), plus sundry other deities
  • 10: Deities of the underworld, centred around Dizang (Kṣitigarbha), flanked by the Yama Kings of the Ten Courts, as well as the City God and Earth God who report on the deeds of the living; guarded by Ox-head and Horse-face.

For comments on the pantheons of village ritual associations in the region, see Zhang Zhentao, Yinyuehui, pp.282–5 (his list for Liujing apparently documenting another pantheon from Liujing that I didn’t see).

The pantheon clearly serves as a spiritual focus during rituals. But while it seems fruitful to have a conspectus of the sacred world for such a village, my caveat about such work is that we can’t simply list these gods as some abstract quorum for religious faith. For worshippers, only the major figures among these gods are of great practical significance—and that perhaps applies as much to imperial times as to today. They are mainly concerned to gain the blessings of Houtu; they have recourse to deities like the major Daoist and Buddhist gods, along with Tudi, Songsheng, and Yanguang; but the others are bit-players. So I prefer to anchor our studies in religious practice. Perhaps the list best reflects the realm of spirit mediums, who occupy this world—see here (also with a vignette from Houshan), as well as the main post on Houshan, and under Women of Yanggao 2.

We didn’t ask, but I assume that the Liujing pantheon was based on the memory of an earlier painting, with village elders inviting the artist to depict the deities on the basis of their recollections. People’s allegiance and recourse to deities may change over history—in the case of spirit mediums, over a single generation; I wonder if we have any indications of this for one particular locale, with pantheons from different eras.

Of course, the study of Chinese religions is, um, a broad church: some scholars focus on ancient manuals, some approach the topic as anthropologists, while others attempt to combine ethnography and history. We are all “blind people groping at the elephant“. With my own perspective, the relation of such deities to rituals performed by the Hebei associations remains distant; while Houtu, Guanyin, Dizang, and so on are among the gods whose stories are recited in “precious scrolls” (see under The Houshan Daoists, and The Houtu scroll), few of the other deities depicted play any liturgical role. We shouldn’t allow our fascination with iconography [speak for yourself—Ed.] to detract from people’s actual religious observances.

For elsewhere in north China, note Hannibal Taubes’s remarkable website, including the pantheons of spirit mediums in Wutai county, Shanxi (cf. my 1992 visit). Pantheons are among the extensive collection of Li Yuanguo 李遠國 in Sichuan (click here). See also Ritual paintings of north China.

With thanks to Hannibal Taubes

Musics lost and found

MC cover

  • Michael Church, Musics lost and found: song collectors and the life and death of folk tradition (2021)

makes an engaging diachronic introduction to fieldworkers, and the musics they documented, in societies around the world—a sequel to his 2015 book The other classical musics (favourably reviewed here). Of course, our labels of “classical” and folk” are flawed (see e.g. What is serious music?!): the two volumes overlap.

In his astute Introduction, Michael notes the role of “colonial curiosity, sometimes tinged with guilt”, as well as patriotism and the distortion of local traditions under nationalistic movements and then state socialism (cf. the observations of Milan Kundera and Yang Yinliu). He comments:

Some collecting has been a response to horrifying circumstances. The most heroic collector of Nazi death-camp songs was the Polish singer-songwriter Aleksander Kulisiewicz, who survived three years in Sachsenhausen and devoted the rest of his life to performing the songs he had memorised from Jewish fellow-prisoners. There was a clandestine Jewish choir in Sachsenhausen whose members told him that, if he survived, he should preserve their memory by singing their songs to the rest of the world. That became his mission; his 3,000-page typescript of death-camp songs—many collected from survivors of other camps whom he sought out after the war—is now lodged in the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Even in less extreme conditions, under authoritarian regimes such as the USSR the work of collecting was dangerous. Now I think too of Rahilä Dawut, distinguished anthropologist doing fine work on Uyghur culture until she was “disappeared” in 2017.

While Michael recognises that his selection is to some extent arbitrary, beyond the Usual Suspects (Béla Bartók, Cecil Sharp, the Lomaxes), the chapters tell fascinating stories, digesting a vast amount of material—focusing on pioneering fieldworkers before the 1970s but also showing the ongoing work of more recent scholars.

As to the thorny issues of “loss”,

Most of the work songs which Alan Lomax collected in Spain and Italy in the 1950s are sung no more. The same applies to the work songs which Komitas found in rural Armenia, and which Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger collected in England a century ago. These songs are gone, because the reasons for their existence—the trades they accompanied—are gone. And after the death of the village comes the death of the songs marking its calendrical and life-cycle events; there comes, in short, the death of local music. This rule holds for all villages, everywhere.

And

Worn-out and irrelevant forms may not be replaced by new ones, because the conditions required for that process—community and kinship networks and the aforesaid shared religion or ideology—no longer obtain, and may never obtain again.

But Michael does well to observe that

The old idea of an immutable musical corpus is giving way to the idea of an endlessly mutable art; the primacy of collecting is being replaced among scholars by the primacy of interpretation.

And indeed he concedes that the prospect is not one of unrelieved gloom. “Migrants carry their music in their baggage”, and

New work inspires new songs: baggage-handlers for Amazon in Genoa, whose forefathers sang as they humped fish, have devised new songs to speed their parcels.

Michael contrasts fusions that are the spontaneous result of social shifts with those that are arbitrarily willed by producers. He ends his Introduction with thoughtful reflections on the role of Covid.

* * *

The chapters are loosely grouped in four sections. “Why it all began” begins with a prelude on the various motives for collecting song in 18th century Europe—political, colonial, and economic—introducing Johann Gottfried Herder and the concept of Volkslied. Chapters follow on the 17th-century broadside ballads and Francis James Child; Orientalists from France (Jesuit priests in Beijing and Salvador-Daniel in Algiers); and the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723), documenting Ottoman music in Constantinople after being taken hostage. Here’s a sample of Jordi Savall’s project on Cantemir with Hesperion XXI:

“The birth of ethnomusicology” opens with chapters on collecting among Native American peoples—from Alice Fletcher’s work on the Omaha to Franz Boas.

Michael moves on to the work of Komitas (1869–1935) studying Armenian song on the eve of the 1915 genocide; and the British folk-song revival with the “contentious” Cecil Sharp, followed by Percy Grainger.

Bartok 1907

In “Carrying the torch: collectors in Northern and Eastern Europe” (a misleading rubric, since the chapters range far more widely), after an Introduction (featuring collectors such as Pyotr Kireyevsky (1808–56) in Russia, Karel Erben (1811–70) and Leos Janáček for Bohemia and Moravia, Vasil Stoin (1880–1938) for Bulgaria, Bjarni Thorsteinsson (1861–1938) for Iceland), Michael offers a fine chapter on Béla Bartók, with his extraordinary fieldtrips before World War One collecting songs in Transylvania, Slovakia, Romania, Ruthenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Algeria—and much later, Egypt (1932) and Turkey (1936). Michael ponders Bartók’s prescriptive agenda, seeking the “purity” of “ancient” songs, disdaining “Gypsy” and “sacred” melodies. But he was always in search of connections:

In 1912, I discovered among the Maramures Romanians a certain kind of highly ornamented, Orientally-coloured and improvisation-like melody. In 1913, in a village of Central Algeria bordering the Sahara desert, I heard a similar melodic style. […] Who would have thought that the distance between the two phenomena—more than 2,000 kilometres—could be bridged by a causal relationship?

Lomax

This leads to a chapter on John Lomax and his son Alan, subsuming not only their work among (mainly African-) American folk-singers (cf. Bruce Jackson) but Alan’s work in the Bahamas, Haiti, Britain, Spain, and notably Italy, working with Diego Carpitella. Note the Alan Lomax Archive on YouTube.

Among the pioneers of Australian Aboriginal music cultures, Michael highlights the work of Theodor Strehlow with the Aranda. The old theme recurs:

I am recording the sunset of an age that will never return—every act that I see is being performed for the last time, and the men who are with me have no successors. When they die, they will take all their knowledge to the grave with them—except that part which I have recorded. Hence I am writing down everything in full detail, so as to give the clearest picture of an age and of a culture that no one else but I have been privileged to witness.

In Chapter 12 Michael introduces the Western fascination with gamelan, from the 1889 Exposition Universelle to Jaap Kunst and Colin McPhee. The site Bali1928.net has a wealth of (silent, alas) film clips.

The work of Paul Bowles in Morocco makes another vivid topic. Turning to Greece, Michael introduces the mission of Domna Samiou to document folk traditions there. John Blacking’s work on the Venda is a classic inspiration for ethnomusicologists. He goes on to explore the importance of record companies, introducing Moses Asch, Folkways, Nonesuch, Ocora, PAN, and Topic Records—before the label “world music” became a bland catch-all.

The final section, “Musical snapshots: the importance of sound archives” is introduced with notes on the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, East European archives, the British Library Sound Archive and the Golha Project on Persian music.

Chapter 17 explores the traditions of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Xinjiang—and further afield, Tuva. Despite the spectre of Soviet prescriptive innovations, collectors did some fine work, such as Viktor Uspensky and Viktor Belyayev, followed by foreign researchers like Jean During and Theodore Levin, and the Aga Khan Music Initiative. This leads to Afghanistan, introducing local musician-collectors, and the work of John Baily and Veronica Doubleday.

Chapters follow on Russia and Georgia—as a change from the polished stage presentation of many groups, here’s a Georgian group singing informally:

Musics lost and found continues with Pygmy polyphony in central Africa, with Colin Turnbull, Simha Arom, Suzanne Fürniss; and the radif of Persian art music.

Yang Yinliu 1950

Yang Yinliu, 1950.

Chapter 23 discusses China: the great Yang Yinliu, and my own humble fieldwork with the Gaoluo ritual association, the Li family Daoists, and shawm bands—all themes amply covered on this blog. Korean traditions (see my posts on Dang and Bowed zithers, 1) are introduced through the art of p’ansori; and Japan through taiko drumming—having left the more venerable traditions of gagaku, Noh, and kabuki to The other classical musics.

In the two final chapters Michael discusses the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage programme and its pitfalls, ending with a thoughtful overview of the book’s knotty issues. Besides the bibliography, each chapter ends with a basic reading list.

More digestible than the New Grove and Garland encyclopedias, sections in the two New Grove Ethnomusicology volumes, or even The Rough Guide to world music, this book leads audiences to a wealth of traditions. While scholars were poring over musty tomes in libraries, and composers busy composing, these intrepid collectors were busy in the field, seeking to make sense of the cultural life of grassroots communities.

While Musics lost and found covers an impressive amount of ground, there’s scope for a further volume. The story of Milman Parry and Albert Lord recording the “Homeric” epics of bards in 1930s’ Yugoslavia (archive here) would be grist to Michael’s mill. Bruno Nettl is one of the crucial figures in ethnomusicology, not only for his studies of Native American cultures but for his work in Iran. Also valuable are Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s explorations of the Mediterranean. The chapter on the Lomaxes hints at the vibrant field of Italy, but one might also adduce the work of Roberto Leydi, Tullia Magrini, and so on. Though the work of Richard Widdess in Nepal gets a mention in the Introduction, south Asia deserves a lengthier treatment, to include the likes of Arnold Bake and Nicolas Magriel. And so on…

* * *

Tom Service introduced the book with Michael on BBC Radio 3 Music Matters (here, from 17.01). The programme introduces English folk-song; migration and “climate change in music”; singing in Albania and Genoa; and (from 28.42) Veronica Doubleday discusses her outstanding work in 1970s’ Afghanistan and the current crisis—a clear instance of a culture that is very much under threat, of course.

It’s true that village communities have changed decisively. But we need a new model for the ecosphere of folk tradition. Such genres are not timeless; even Bach’s cantatas soon fell from favour, and whether or not they find new audiences is not something that I worry about, although recordings and documentation are clearly valuable.

In China I often feel as if I’m responsible for the dwindling of the folk traditions that I document; or to put it another way, the very forces that bring us to these sites are those which lead to change. The role of the fieldworker has come under increasing scrutiny, as in such works as Shadows in the field (see e.g. William Noll on blind minstrels of Ukraine). Further to Nigel Barley’s portrayal of the fieldworker as “harmless idiot”, I sometimes feel like a harmful idiot.

Tom Service opens with a soundbite much favoured by pundits: “folk music cultures are in danger of extinction all over the world”.  I’m none too enamoured with the concept of “endangered traditions”: since the beginnings of anthropology, fieldworkers have always supposed they were witnessing the last vestiges of a tradition. It tends to suggest a nostalgia for the halcyon days of child chimney-sweeps (cf. Edible, intangible, dodgy). Cultural loss is a thorny issue. As Michael indeed suggests, the book’s leitmotif—the fear that the music of collectors’ chosen field might evaporate before they managed to fully document it—may not be so well-founded. It’s always too late, and never.

* * *

The book was sonorously launched with an event at the Wigmore Hall, making a fitting tribute to live musicking after a long silence, as well as a reminder of the rich traditions maintained among UK diasporas. In an exquisite programme, it was wonderful to hear Veronica Doubleday again, followed by a cappella songs from the Georgian Maspindzeli choir, Persian classical music performed by Mehdi Namdar (ney) and Fariborz Kiani (goblet drum), and the Anatolian folk songs of Çiğdem Aslan accompanied by Erdal Yapici on baglama.

* * *

See also e.g. my voluminous fieldwork and world music categories in the sidebar; note Society and soundscape.

Women in Tibet, 2

Ajakhaba 1944

The status of women in old and new Tibet is an increasingly popular topic, with studies headed by Janet Gyatso and Hanna Havnevik (eds.), Women in Tibet, including Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s chapter on women in expressive culture (outlined here), Charlene Makley on nuns (cf. her book The violence of liberation), and Robbie Barnett on women in contemporary politics.

Jamyang Norbu has long been a challenging voice in the Tibetan exile community (see The Lhasa ripper, The enchanting world of Tibetan opera, and The mandala of Sherlock Holmes). I also appreciate his

a “rambling essay is based on a rambling talk” that he gave to Tibetan students in Delhi on 1st April (sic) 2019.

I made a hash of my talk. A 20-hour flight, jet lag, and an injudicious self-prescribed nostrum [excellent expression—Ed.], didn’t help. But the hundred or so curious, outspoken, eager-to-know students just brushed aside my incoherence, and bombarded me with arguments and questions—even on issues considered terrifyingly taboo in our subservient exile society. I had a great time.

Indeed, the article makes a refreshing complement to more arcane academic studies. His typically virtuosic discussion mainly concerns old Tibet, with notes on the Maoist era. He opens by noting that, by contrast with other Asian societies,

in numerous accounts of visitors and travellers to pre-1950 Tibet one comes across positive and even laudatory comments on the role of women in Tibetan society.

He cites the work of Yudru Tsomo (Sichuan University) on the traditional role of women in business and trade. Socially too,

not only did the lady of the house receive guests and socialise with them, it was in fact required of women to dine and drink with male guests and take part in the conversation.

Gould 1939

He notes that

Such social freedoms were not only the preserve of the aristocracy but widespread in all classes. In Lhasa, women drank and made merry publicly during the summer and autumn picnic seasons. […]

Once as a schoolboy in Darjeeling, I passed by a large group of Tibetan women on the Chowrastha road. They had gone for a Sangsol (incense offering) ceremony at the Observatory Hill, or Gangchen as Tibetans called it, the site of the oldest Buddhist temple in the district.  They were returning home, arm-in arm, singing songs, strolling down the main Chowrastha and Nehru Road where all the posh stores were located. They were dressed in their best silks and jewelry and all happily drunk, oblivious of the amused stares of passers-by. Some sheepish looking Tibetan men and servants accompanied them.

He also discusses social freedom and equality, and legal issues such as property rights and divorce. As he observes,

Financial independence gave Tibetan women the freedom to ignore or disregard male (particularly priestly) condemnation of their lifestyles, in particular the use of Western cosmetics that were in vogue from the 1930s.

He cites Alexandra David-Neel (1934), who observed that women

had achieved a de facto equality despite law and scripture unfavourable to them, this by virtue of innate independence and physical stamina…Tibetan women had mastered a harsh environment and gained sway over their men. Tibetan women were clever and brave and therefore valued by their husbands. It also helped that a large portion of the retail trade was in women’s hands.

Even after the Chinese invasion,

In the mid-1950s, when motor-biking became the rage in the Holy City, one of the first and most glamorous of bikers was the celebrated Lhasa beauty, the younger Lady Lhalu Sonam Deki, who roared around the holy city on a black BSA 500.

Women in religious life
He is careful not to portray Tibet as some kind of feminist paradise.

Women had no major role in the great religious institutions, particularly in the Gelukpa monastic universities, and also in the clerical power structure of the Tibetan government. There were important female incarnations as Samding Dorje Phagmo and also some important nunneries, but these were admittedly minor compared to the scale and importance of the male priestly institutions.

Still, as shown in several chapters of Women in Tibet, women played an important and recognised role in spiritual practice and teaching, Jamyang Norbu adduces early figures like the dakani Yeshe Tsogyal, the 11th-century Tantric practitioner Machik Labdron, the Samding Dorje Phagmo lineage (see the work of Hildegard Diemberger), and the Nyingma teacher Shukseb Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953). As he notes, female spiritual teachers play a prominent role in Tibetan opera.

Women in politics and nation building
Again, while women played no role in the formal official, political, and military life of old Tibet, they were involved in national political life from early times—such as Semarkar, sister of Emperor Songtsen Gampo (547?–649), and Trimalo Triteng, consort of emperor Manglon Mangtsen, the grandson of Songtsen Gampo. Here Jamyang Norbu refers us to the work of Helga Uebach, which again features in Women in Tibet.

In modern times, the Lhasa aristocrat Yeshi Dolma became queen of Sikkim in 1882.

Women in war and revolution
Women played a significant role in the resistance against the Chinese. In the 1930s Gyari Cheme Dolma rose up against the Sichuan warlord/governor Liu Wenhui.

During the 1956 Uprisings in Eastern Tibet we know of at least two women, Ani Pachen Lemdatsang of Gonjo and Gyari Dorje Yudon of Nyarong, who personally lead their male tribal warriors in violent insurrections against the PLA.

The “female warriors” Galingshar Chöla and Gurteng Kunsang were principal figures in the Women’s March on 12th March 1959 against the escalation of Chinese repression. Jamyang Norbu cites a joint statement by two eyewitnesses in 1961:

On October 21, 1959, a 60-year old nun Galingshar Anila was taken around the Barkhor in Lhasa. The Chinese ordered the people to beat her but no one would do so. Then the Chinese gathered some thieves and beggars, gave them some money and had them beat her at her house… She died on the 31st of the same month.

Gurteng Kunsang was imprisoned, but remained defiant; she was executed along with fifteen other prisoners in 1970.

The story of Trinley Chödrön’s role in the 1969 Nyemo uprising is documented by Melvyn Goldstein. And recently, women as well as men have self-immolated in protest at Chinese rule.

Immolations

Women in old Tibet certainly had more freedoms and rights than their counterparts in India, China, and the rest of Asia, and perhaps even more than in Victorian England. Of course it would be wrong to claim that women in Tibet were equal to men in the full contemporary sense—an equality that in spite of tremendous gains over the years, women in present-day democracies still strenuously contend they have not fully realised.

Well, as tends to be my way, this summary is superfluous—you can read the article!

A Daoist temple in California

*Guest post by Hannibal Taubes*

(for whose remarkable website on temple murals in north China,
see my introductions here, and here).

chico funeral procession copy

Funeral procession, Chico. Source.

A short research report, almost entirely built on others’ research

Recently I agreed to do some pro-bono translation work for the History Museum in Chico, a small city of about 100,000 people in the northern part of the Central Valley of California. I had time to stop by the museum in person in August 2021, while driving from Boston to San Francisco and back to pick up my stuff from storage, and was very courteously put-up and dined-out by the emeritus archaeologist in charge there, one Keith Johnson, and his family. I should note right at the start here that I know nothing about this topic, and that essentially all of the information here is shamelessly pulled either from Keith Johnson’s book Golden altars, or from the fantastic and too-little-known Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee (CINARC) website, which should be the real first stop for anyone interested in Chinese culture in 19th and early-20th century North America. Another great online introduction is this series of articles from the National Park Service, which gives a brief but lively account of Chinese settlement in 19th- and early 20th-century California, as well as its physical remains.

Some of the main Chinese temples in California discussed on the CINARC website.

Alta California acceded to the United States in 1848, in the wake of the Mexican-American War. Gold was discovered in the mountains there in the same year, prompting the first gold rush, and bringing the first Chinese immigrants (mostly from the Pearl River Delta) to the ports of California, especially San Francisco. By 1855, the Chinese community in San Francisco had Daoist temples, an opera house, two newspapers, and several civic associations. While the early communities prospered in many professions, they were shut out from various industries by discriminatory legislation and mob violence; many of the stereotypical images of “Asian” professions in frontier America (railway workers, launderers, shopkeepers) resulted from their systematic and often violent exclusion from other fields of work. Nevertheless, the Chinese immigrants successfully established businesses and Chinatowns all across the American West from the 1850s onward.

Chico
The “Palace of Serried Sages” (Liesheng gong 列聖宮) at Chico was founded in 1884 by immigrants from south China, attracted by the mining, logging, and mercantile opportunities afforded by the Central Valley and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Later, many found work as launderers, grocers, cooks, and domestic servants. The community was financially and commercially sophisticated—the Chico History Museum possesses a detailed 1917 account-book for what seems to be a Chinese banking and money-lending operation, recording loans, withdrawals, interest, and annuities.

interior of the Chico temple showing altar copy

Interior of the Chico temple showing altar, 1910. Source.

The photographs held in the collections of the California State University at Chico give a vivid sense of what the Chico Chinese community looked like in its heyday, as well as other similar communities in the area, especially the neighboring towns of Oroville and Marysville. We see big, cheerful-looking families, wearing a mix of Chinese- and Western-style clothes. At least one of these families from the 1950s is multiracial, a Chinese man who married an Anglo-American woman. Often the men and boys would sit for formal portraits, staring solemnly into the camera in their starchiest traditional clothes. Another striking photo captures a young girl in a gorgeously embroidered traditional dress and hat, perhaps out for some kind of holiday. Family shots of white households often show Chinese cooks or domestic servants (in the language of the day, “house-boys”), with or without named identification. By the early 20th century, class photos make it clear that ethnic Chinese children attended integrated local schools, alongside their mainly white classmates. More photos capture the scene in the multiple Chinatowns in Chico, Oroville, and Marysville—we see tumbledown launderers’ houses by the river; dense urban districts and bustling town shops; and big houses of brick and rough-hewn wood, as were common in these California frontier settlements at the time.

the altar as it stands in the Chico museum today copy

The altar as it stands in the Chico museum today.

Judging from the dates inscribed on the altar paraphernalia, the Chico temple seems to have been active between the 1880s and the 1910s. This tracks the history of popular Daoism in America generally. As Bennet Bronson notes, popular Daoist temples flourished in Chinese immigrant communities across North America from at least the 1850s onward, with many of the earliest surviving temples on the continent located precisely in the Central Valley region. However, the religion seems to have suffered a sudden and poorly-explained collapse in the 1920s, with many shrines closing or becoming inactive. In the case of Chico, part of the reason may have been an FBI-assisted police raid on a Chinese-run opium-distribution network in 1924 (as a result, the museum today possesses some beautiful carved and inlaid Chinese opium pipes). By the 1930s the Chico Chinatown had almost entirely vanished, and in 1939, three elderly Chinese residents gifted the surviving altar- and temple-goods to a white-American friend, from whose hands these items eventually came to the museum. The temple building was torn down in 1946.

the bright gate copy

The Bright Gate.

From the plaques and inscriptions within the temple, we get a detailed sense of the trans-Pacific and trans-Californian networks that sustained this community. Many of the temple items were manufactured in China. One such item was the massive and intricately carved Bright Gate (caimen 彩門), a gilded frieze depicting opera figures that originally hung above the temple door. According to the inscription, the Bright Gate was built on the Street of Meeting Immortals (Huixian jie 會仙街) in Guangzhou. In other cases, we have the names of the manufacturers. One of the multiple square arches that made up the altar reads:

香港                Hong Kong
城隍街            Street of the City God
百步梯            Hundred-Step Stairs
俊昌造            Made by Jun Chang

In some cases, precisely the vast distances involved in these networks appear as proof of the gods’ all-encompassing power, extending even to the shores of the New World. One set of matching couplets (duilian 對聯) around the altar reads:

帝佑宏深連華夷    神恩浩蕩流海國
The Emperor’s protection is grand and deep, linking both Chinese and Barbarian;
The god’s benevolence is vast and broad, flowing even to the nations beyond the seas.

Most of these goods were gifted to the temple by various fraternal organizations (tong/tang 堂), which could be based either in China, in San Francisco (the nearest large city and sea-port, with a large and well-established Chinese population), or elsewhere on the Western seaboard of the USA. Another inscription on the Hong-Kong produced altarpiece explains how it arrived in Chico:

沐恩余風采堂眾弟子敬     光緒十八年孟春吉旦立
A gratefully received gift of the assembled disciples of the Yee Fung Toy association,
erected on an auspicious day of the first moon of spring in the 18th year of the Guangxu reign [1892].

The majority of inscriptions in the collection are of this sort, recording the charitable or pious gifts to the temple and community, usually by major fraternal associations. While often terse, they do give a sense of how active Chinese civic organizations were in supporting the new settlement in Chico. In a few cases the objects are gifts from individuals, usually described as “disciples” (dizi 弟子) of the god. One inscription from 1908 on a pewter censor describes it as given by “the disciple Zhou Lianzi and the pious woman Yue Hao” 弟子周連子信女月好敬送, indicating that the community of believers included women wealthy and independent enough to be noted as donors.

The purpose of all these donations was to demonstrate one’s own wealth and piety, but also to adorn the communal space with beautiful objects and sophisticated calligraphy. Beyond the gorgeously carved altarpieces and Bright Gate, there are also several elegant plaques and matching couplets. In some cases the calligrapher is identified. One is a decorously anonymous Grass-hall Layman (caotang jushi 草堂居士), whom I have not been able to trace. Another couplet in a cultured hand, described as having been “repaired” (chongxiu 重修) in Guangzhou in 1891, urges lofty sentiments:

志在春秋伸大義    氣充天地庇帬生
Our intent is for the Springs and Autumns, extending great righteousness;
Its qi fills heaven and earth, and protects all living things.

董起庚薰沐敬書
Calligraphy respectfully written by Dong Qigeng, after burning incense and performing ablutions.

Dong Qigeng was a locally well-known exam-graduate, painter, and calligrapher active in 19th century Guangdong, whose works are still popular today in Chinese auction-houses. His fame had even spread abroad—his calligraphy is also found in the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association meeting hall (Zhonghua Huiguan 中華會館) in Victoria, British Columbia. All in all, these pieces effectively display the wealth, piety, international reach, and cultural sophistication of the Chico community.

Most of the dates given in these inscriptions are in traditional Chinese format—either an imperial regnal title (“such-and-such year of the reign of the Guangxu emperor”), or in sexagenary format according to the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches (tiangan dizhi 天干地支) system, or both. That is, at least as far as formal inscriptions in their temple were concerned, this community counted the years according to the accession of the Manchu emperors in far-off Beijing. One brief inscription on a pewter censor, however, gives insight into another sort of politics:

洪順堂敬送     天運六年吉日
A gift from the Hongshun Association,
on an auspicious day of the 6th year of Heavenly Motion (Tianyun).

The Hongshun Association is one name for the Heaven-and-Earth Assembly (Tiandihui 天地會), an anti-state secret society with branches in many Chinese communities, especially in San Francisco. “Heavenly Motion” is an anti-state calendrical term dating back to at least the 17th century. Its use implies that the Hongshun Association viewed the ruling Manchu imperial house and its regnal titles as illegitimate, and it was thus a statement of revolutionary intent.

When I originally saw the “6th year,” I naturally wondered what “year one” was. A note on the ever-fascinating CINARC website puts the puzzle-pieces together. Another inscription from Victoria, British Columbia, reads “Heavenly Motion 3, or the ding-wei year” 天運三丁未年. The ding-wei year corresponds to 1907. As the CINARC editors note, the famous revolutionary Sun Yat-sen gave a speech in San Francisco in 1904 endorsing the use of Heavenly Motion dates as an anti-state signifier. Thus it seems that at least one revolutionary group on the West coast of North America began to date their calendars from that year. The “6th year of Heavenly Motion” on the pewter vessel in Chico should be from 1910, only one year before China’s last imperial dynasty did in fact collapse in the face of a nationalist rebellion.

As for the rituals that took place inside the Chico temple, our only information is from old photographs and the ritual objects themselves. Like all Chinese temples anywhere in the world, the Chico temple contained incense pots, in which one could place lighted sticks of incense before bowing or “striking the head” (kowtow or ketou 磕頭) at the altar. (Hence the common term for Chinese temples in 19th- and early-20th- century English sources, “joss [incense] houses.”) The altar itself contains spirit-plaques (shenpai 神牌) dedicated to Lord Guan (Guangong 關公), Avalokiteśvara-Guanyin (觀音), the historical doctor Hua Tuo 華陀, the astrological god Great Year (Taisui 太歲), and a god of wealth called “The Astral God of Wealth and Silks” (Caibo xingjun 財帛星君). Another item is a wooden stamp with the words, “The fountainhead of wealth pours broadly in” (Caiyuan guangjin 財源廣進), presumably used for endorsing paper or cloth articles brought to the temple for luck. I haven’t come across anything recording an actual ordained Daoist priest resident in Chico, but it seems probable that one or more laymen had enough basic ritual knowledge to see to their own community’s spiritual needs.

Chico funeral procession with banners copy

Chico funeral procession with banners. Source.

One thing the Chico temple definitely was involved in was organising communal parades, whether for the lunar New Year, or for funerals. These parades were intended to be loud, splendid, and very public displays of the entire community’s joy or grief, and thus they were frequently objects of comment and photography by non-Chinese observers. The California State University at Chico library holds dozens of usefully-digitized photographs of these parades from the 19th century onward, in both Chico and the neighboring towns. Photos show perhaps over a hundred people marching down the main streets of town, often in sumptuous robes or ceremonial military uniforms with the character “Brave” (Yong 勇) embroidered on the front, bearing giant banners, parasols, and ceremonial weapons. Several of these wooden weapons remain among the temple-goods in the museum today. In some of the photos, the procession is led by an immense American flag, perhaps to display patriotism in their new home, or to avoid abuse by their white neighbors on these most visible of communal occasions, or both. Other photos show dragon-dances, setting off firecrackers, carrying temple palanquins with religious images, and so on.

Chico funeral procession with American flag copy

Chico funeral procession with American flag. Source.

Related to these public funeral processions, a major concern of many Chinese communities in North America was the ritually proper burial, and reburial, of the dead. One photograph shows the Chico Chinese graveyard as it stood in the 1950s. The museum has on display two Chinese gravestones, both with elegantly simple inscriptions giving the name, place of origin, and date of death of the interred:

會邑                            Hui Town (Huizhou)
古井磨耳村                Old Well Millstone Village
趙贊美墳磨                The grave of Zhao Zanmei
光緒拾六年                In the 16th year of the Guangxu reign
眾于四月卄一日        He passed away on 21st day of the first moon [June 8th, 1890].

the grave brick copyAnother interesting object in the museum is a small red brick, with the following terse inscription:

白洪[ ]井村  Bai and Hong [one character missing] Well Village
馬贊喜公墳  The grave of master Ma Zanxi
光緒三十一年四月終
Passed away in the 4th moon of the 31st year of the Guangxu reign [~ May 1905].

Such Chinese “grave-bricks” are known from across North America, as far north as Alaska. Many Chinese immigrants, concerned about dying abroad without descendants or proper burial rituals, wanted their remains to be shipped back to their native villages. An elaborate trans-Pacific network sprang up to facilitate this. These small bricks would be buried with the body, providing an accurate name and address in the event of disinterment.

The arrival of special teams from China to disinter corpses was an object of morbid interest in the American press at the time. In his capacity as a reporter in San Francisco, Mark Twain described one attempt by the California legislature to discourage Chinese immigration by banning such ritual disinterments, calling the proposed legislation “an ingenious refinement of Christian cruelty.” Another newspaper article (again, quoted on the CINARC site) describes the arrival of such a team in Chico in 1893:

The Chinese population of the town of Chico, Cal., has for the past two weeks been under a strain of excitement concerning the exhumation and removal of all the bodies buried in the Chinese cemetery of that place. This has been a gruesome spectacle. A company of native resurrectionists dug into the graves, took up the coffins, removed their contents and deliberately set to work getting rid of the more or less decomposed flesh, scraping the bones, drying them, then gathering them in bunches, carefully tied, wrapped, then labeled with the respective cognomens of the several deceased and the residence of the particular families in China … (San Francisco Call 1893-11-14, p.19)

The prurient tone of this newspaper article suggests some of the darker aspects of the Chico Chinese community’s story. For all that the Chinese community lived and prospered in Chico for over fifty years, they remained isolated amidst a society that could treat them with open and sometimes violent racism. The Chico temple was founded only two years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The following decade saw a wave of brutal massacres, expulsions, arson attacks, and acts of mob violence against Chinese in the United States and particularly in California. By the end of the decade, many counties in the area had expelled their entire Chinese populations, often with multiple fatalities. In Chico, a fire destroyed much of the Chinatown in 1887; the firehose that might have put it out was found severed in four places. The California State University at Chico holds and has digitized the minute-book for the “Chico Anti-Chinese League,” which goes on for over a hundred pages between the years 1894 and 1896, in mercifully illegible handwriting.

Unfortunately, this story of discrimination and communal destruction is not yet over—witness the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across the USA. Nor is California’s fascinating heritage of popular Daoist temples safe from harm in 2021—according to Chico archaeologist Keith Johnson, at least two historic Chinese temples in California have been destroyed by accidental fires in the last decade, and more are now in danger from the massive climate-change induced wildfires that now regularly sweep across the state, consuming towns and cities.

In early 2019, I hosted a Chinese friend in San Francisco, a Beijing-based film-maker with whom I’d worked together to document at-risk temples and historic mural sites in impoverished parts of rural Hebei province. As we walked along the waterfront in Berkeley, looking across the great blue Bay to the cloud-wrapped towers of downtown SF, winds off the Pacific were driving long trains of waves through the Golden Gate to crash on the shores of America. I told him that I was as much, and as little, a foreigner here as he. Chinese people have been in California for as long as Anglo-Americans, and Russians and Spanish and Mexicans were here before that, and before them, the Maidu, Ohlone, Miwok, Yokuts, and more peoples too many to name. When some part of this place’s history vanishes, the loss belongs to all of us.