Bombarded with cultural traditions and unrealistic fantasies, we often forget that a woman is a person and it is her right to define her life in her own terms. When she is allowed to do so, the power, truth and beauty of her uniqueness far surpasses anything culture or advertising has shown us. Men experience cultural objectification to some degree, as well, but are more likely to be rewarded for breaking the mold, while women are most often castigated.
The following is a luscious music video by the Brazilian band Francisco, el Hombre(Francis the Man) from their 2016 album Soltasbruxa (LettheWitchesOut). The video was directed by Rafa Camâra and filmed in an early 20th Century mansion in Havana, Cuba. It features the sultry voice of Juliana Strassacapa backed by guest vocalists Salma Jô, Helena Macedo, Larissa Baq and Renata Éssis, as well as the Cuban dance company Danza Voluminosa. The gentleness of the song and the fluid elegance of the dancers do not diminish the defiant spirit that gives this song power.
Danza Voluminosa was founded in 1996 by Juan Miguel Mas. Unlike conventional dance troupes, they do not pressure their dancers to maintain or lose weight, but seek out heavier body types. They teach their dancers to embrace their bodies and express their emotions through movement. These dancers may move differently than the body types the world is used to putting on display, but they are no less creative and expressive. Their work has been praised for its sensitivity, emotional impact, beauty and uniqueness.
Francisco, el Hombre was formed in 2013 when two brothers, Sebastián and Mateo Piracés-Ugarte, left Mexico and moved to Brazil. There they met Juliana Strassacapa, Rafael Gomes and Andrei Martinez Kozyreff and decided they needed to do something different with their lives.
“Four years ago, us friends felt an urgent need to live, to feel, to learn and grow. The way we found to do that was to get out of our “nest” and travel in order to learn. Music was the means that we found to be able to travel without money. We played on the street, in restaurants in exchange for food, in hostels in return for a night’s stay. And that was inspired by the figure of Francisco el Hombre. Meaning, we didn’t think about forming a band, it was about a learning experience.” –Sebastián Piracés-Ugarte, Billboard Magazine, 11/14/2017
Francisco, el Hombre
Named for a legendary folk musician from Colombia, who sang and played as he traveled, Francisco, el Hombre spends a great deal of time touring throughout Latin America, singing about the struggles of common people. They are no stranger to injustice themselves. In 2015, the entire band was robbed and lost all of their possessions after playing a show in Mendoza, Argentina. They had to crowd source to rebuild the band, but the experience seems to have made them more resilient. They did not travel to the Latin Grammys when Soltasbruxa was nominated, preferring to tour among the people who understand them best.
Latin American art and music has always been among the most political and socially conscious, and Soltasbruxa is no exception. It is a stirring mix of feminism, anti-capitalist and anti-greed sentiment, and idealism shattered and bent by reality. Triste, Louca ou Má is among the gentlest tracks on the album, which starts with the keening excitement of the title track and builds into to the riotous harmonic strains of Calor da Rua (the Heat of the Street), a exposition of domestic violence on the street. The entire album is full of surprises and quick changes in tone. Sensual melodies, daring harmony and infectious dance music are all present and delightful, but it isn’t merely entertaining. It is an explosive shout for those who are tired of losing.
Years after a catastrophe, resilience continues to express itself. Memory lets us relive and reinterpret past events, unpacking things that overwhelmed us and growing our response over time. It is not an easy process. The approach of a date, a particular smell, image, or snippet of music can send us back to a deeply fearful place. Some try to forget, but the things we hide from the daylight have a way of resurfacing in our dreams. Unexpressed emotions can be powerful poisons. A world that suppresses history is a world in which violence simmers continually just beneath the collective consciousness. Resilience grows in the soil of our stories, informing the people we become, passing through us into our relationships and communities. We must share with one another if we want to survive.
This prose poem is the work of my friend, Sherry Cheng, a vibrant, warm and intelligent Chinese American woman who came to the United States in her teenage years. In it, she relates how the catastrophic events that happened in Tiananmen Square on a fateful day in 1989 impacted her, her family and her future husband. Her raw honesty speaks volumes, simple and clear. There cannot be many things more terrifying than a government that kills, imprisons and intimidates people with impunity.
Let me set the stage. On June 4, 1989, a peaceful, student-led protest is violently suppressed by the Chinese government, as the military, armed with rifles and tanks, kills at least several hundred unarmed people in Tiananmen Square. The images of tanks plowing down students shocks the world. Wei, Sherry’s future husband, is at the Central Conservatory, where he studies viola. Almost a decade before he will meet his wife, he steps out of the conservatory into a war zone. Sherry is sixteen and sits in front of a television set in an apartment in Starkville, MS, as horrific reports of the violence in her homeland flood the screen. Sherry’s aunt, a student at the University of Chicago who had taken donations from Americans to the student protesters at Tiananmen Square, boards a plane back to Chicago with her three year old son. She is also pregnant. Plain clothes police waiting on the plane meet her and take her and her son to prison. They will be missing for nearly two weeks, while her family uses every connection they have to find them. It will take a couple of months and a promise that she will never again be politically active for the family to secure their release.
Violence is not an anonymous phenomenon. The aggressors, the injured, the killed, the witnesses: they all have faces.
June 4, 1989
29 years ago today the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, bullets flew overhead while a young man lay prostrate on the ground right outside the Central Conservatory gates. He saw a little girl shot down,
an innocent bystander,
her Mother wailing.
A 16 year old girl across the ocean sat transfixed, as events transpired on her TV screen. She could not control her tears as images passed by of bloodied bodies piled on makeshift carts.
Hope turned to fear that day and for months after. Innocent deaths, interrogations, terror, arrests… The girl’s aunt, who had helped distribute funds to the peaceful protesters, disappeared from the airport on route to Chicago, her whereabouts unknown for weeks. She had her 3 year old son with her, as well as another one on the way.
Fast forward 29 years… I mark this day every year because forgetting is easy, even for those who experienced the terror first hand, like my husband. even for those who believed so strongly in an ideal that they would’ve given their lives for it, like my aunt. Because life does go on. We move forward.
So many have forgotten. For each new generation the memory grows dimmer. History is reevaluated and reinterpreted. Black and white, right and wrong, everything is blurred. Amnesia sets in. Ideals are lost.
But I’m still here, so is Wei. We carry that history with us. We will tell our stories every year, even when no one is listening.
Humanity can be callous and wasteful, but we often form attachments to things. Can connecting with sentimentality help encourage awareness?
In this age of technology and mass production, we are accustomed to replacing things as they age and break down. It is usually easier to buy a new item rather than repairing an old one. At the same time, who hasn’t lamented that new products are not made like they used to be, that they break down more quickly or are just plain cheap? There are also those items that have sentimental value for us: grandma’s china, a trinket from a beloved friend or spouse, a piece of art or serving ware picked up while traveling. We don’t like losing these things. Any replacement will lack resonance and memory, which lie not in the form or function of the thing, but in its symbolic value as a connection between us and another person, place, time or culture. Once that connection is broken, we slide farther away from our past and feel a little less grounded. As a person who has been through three floods in my home, I have felt that discomfort and can vouch that it has little to do with materialism. We often say that stuff is “just stuff”. That is true most of the time, but not when it has memory attached to it.
Japanese artisans have a way of memorializing such objects when they are broken. It’s called kintsugi, the art of repairing ceramics with lacquer and gold leaf, elevating them to the level of fine art. They may or may not lose functionality in the process, but they become more precious and gain more significance as symbols. This beautiful film from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England gives a marvelous taste of this traditional art form.
The golden connections of kintsugi remind us that relationships and connections are important, that they cannot be replaced. In our pursuit of innovation and excellence, we have to be careful to safeguard and nourish those things that make us human. The synchronicity we find there is worth the time and effort spent.
The next time you break something precious, think about making it into a piece of art. If you need help doing that, there are artisans like the makieshi and disciplines like kintsugi in many cultures. They can enrich your life with symbols, repurposing and elevating what has broken or been worn out. These artisans need the work and our global culture needs the richness they supply. What can be more excellent than honoring our experience and those who have impacted our lives?
The word flourish signifies not only rampant growth, but a gesture or set of gestures that personify vitality and life. That gesture may be expressed in words, carpentry, architecture, music, dance, cooking. There is no pursuit known to humanity that cannot be executed with flourish. One of the most striking exhibitions of this creative gesture is in the music and dance style known as flamenco.
Flamenco’s origins lie in Andalusia with the Roma people of southern Spain, known as gitanos. The ancestors of the gitanos came across Europe and north Africa from northern India and were known pejoratively as gypsies. It is no accident that this vibrant celebration of life and passion came from a people who were persecuted and denigrated. The subject matter is often painful and dark, presented with an emotional intensity and controlled artistry that transmutes such feelings into beautiful, cathartic moments.
Flamenco is a musical tradition that flowered into dance. The dancer embodies the anguish and beauty of the singer’s voice, the rhythmic anxiety and ferocity of the guitar. In most traditions, dancing favors the young, with supple bodies that are flexible and strong. Flamenco favors the emotional palette of the mature dancer and it is not unusual for a flamenco artist to dance well into their fifties and beyond. The duende, or soul of the dance will not give itself easily to the dancer who has not experienced the difficulties of life. In a happy contrast, the flashy and spellbinding footwork is likely to keep the dancer in shape for many years.
This video is from the documentary, Flamenco, Flamenco by Carlos Saura. It’s a beautiful documentary you should check out when you have the time.
The form above is alegrías, or “joys”, a particularly fast paced style, or palo, of flamenco in twelve-eight time, with accents on beat 3, 6, 8, 10 and 12. As the strong beats get closer together in the second half of the bar the rhythm pushes forward with a tense agitation. The dancer is Sara Baras, who has toured the world as a soloist and as the lead dancer of her own company. She has also appeared as a model in London, Madrid and Lisbon, and been featured in Mission: Impossible 2. When she was younger, teachers complained that her feet were too loud, but their percussiveness is a strength and hallmark of her particular gift. Both Sara and her dancing exemplify the meaning of the word flourish in all its shadings.
Sara is a native Andalusian, but it should be noted that, during the Spanish recession, the flourishing of modern flamenco has been sustained and enriched by people from other lands, among them northern Africa, the United States and Japan. It seems fitting that its Roma roots have been extended back out into the global sphere. They carry with them a very important message: We do not flourish when life is easy; we flourish when we surmount our difficulties.
Sudan is largely a country of desert, the Sahara reaching deeper and deeper into the nation with every passing year. Ancient civilizations once flourished here on the banks of the Nile: Kerma, Nobatia, Alodia, Makuria, Kush, Meroë- their names fade into legend. Nubia, the area of Sudan and Lower Egypt along the Nile, developed alongside and equal to the more famous kingdom of Northern Egypt and was ruled by its own line of Pharoahs. The name Sudan comes from Arabic: bilād as-sūdān, the “lands of the Blacks”. These were proud lands for centuries, but today are war torn and famine infested. We must never forget that human civilization is a fragile thing.
This is the first of a series of posts on Sudan, focusing on the beauty and artistic creativity of that nation. It is a gallery of images which have been shared online by photographers traveling and working there. Christopher Michel, David Stanley, Mark Fischer, Petr Adam Dohnálek and Arsenie Coseac have made their work available with Creative Commons Licenses. Click on the captions beneath the the photo collages to see their full albums and link to more of their images. Synkroniciti is indebted to the generosity and boldness of these travelers and artists. I encourage you to follow them.
Travel to Sudan is not easy, nor is it encouraged. The Darfur region, Blue Nile, and Southern Kordofan states are listed as off limits by the U.S. State Department, but, to be honest, the U.S. Embassy’s reach does not extend far outside the capital of Khartoum. Armed conflict is heaviest in the south of the country, where terrorism, warfare and violent crime abound. Genocide has been attempted in the provinces of Darfur and war crimes have occurred in various places across Sudan and South Sudan, which gained its independence in 2011. Both countries have been terrorized by corrupt governments, lawless military forces, disease and famine. This series will concentrate on the northern nation.
The Sudanese are descended from a combination of indigenous East African peoples and immigrants from the Arabian peninsula. By recent estimates, Sudanese Arabs make up around 70% of the population. Sudan is also home to 18 other ethnic groups and almost 600 subgroups speaking more than 100 languages. Nubians, Nuba, Zaghawa, Copts, Fur and Beja are among those groups. Most Sudanese are Muslim (around 97%), with Christians and adherents to indigenous religions filling out the mix. South Sudan, on the other hand, is less than 20% Muslim.
What does home look like in Sudan? Most are built of mudbricks or thatch, or a combination of both. Mudbricks may be covered with stucco and painted. Many houses consist of a single room, which may be round or rectangular, while others contain multiple rooms. There are also apartment buildings in Khartoum and other large cities. Some homes are designed for permanent use, while others are simple shelters for semi-nomadic families who move about the desert with their livestock. It is common for permanent residences to include a walled courtyard or garden on premises.
Earthen hut with thatched roof in Toteil, near Kassala, Sudan
View of the Taka Mountains from Toteil near Kassala, Sudan
Thatched hut house in Toteil near Kassala and Taka Mountains, eastern Sudan
In the slums outside of Khartoum, where refugees cluster and the government periodically knocks down homes on the pretense of urban planning, one can see people eking out their lives in houses cobbled together from sticks, cloth and cardboard. If they are lucky, they may have a wall or two that survived demolition. If the government ever makes good on its promise to build new homes with electricity and water, it isn’t likely that refugees and the poor would be able to live here. Unlike the nomads, these people don’t have anywhere to go.
Khartoum is a sprawling city at the confluence of the Blue Nile, flowing from Ethiopia, and the White Nile, flowing from Lake Victoria. The waters mass together here on their journey north into Egypt. The metropolitan area comprised of Khartoum, North Khartoum and Omdurman, three neighboring cities separated by the Nile and its tributaries, is home to over 5 million people.
Sudanese women visiting Tuti Island where the Blue Nile and White Nile converge
Republican Palace Museum, Khartoum, formerly and Anglican Cathedral
Cattle Drive, Omdurman
Sudanese children visiting the National History Museum, Khartoum
The bulging form of Burj al Fateh, also known as the Corinthia Hotel, is prominent on the skyline. The five star hotel, which opened in 2008, was built and financed by the neighboring government of Libya and has 18 guest floors, 173 rooms and 57 suites, with 6 restaurants, a gift shop, a club lounge, a spa and fitness center, Turkish baths, a gym, and courts for squash and tennis. Designed to mimic the shape of a billowing sail, it is known pejoratively as Khaddafi’s Egg, named for the former Libyan dictator.
On Fridays before sunset, except during the month of Ramadan, crowds gather in Omdurman at the Tomb of the 19th century leader Sheik Hamed al-Nil for a festive celebration of Islam featuring Sufi dervishes praying, singing, chanting, drumming, dancing and whirling as inspiration takes them. It’s a very colorful, happy expression of faith which is, incidentally, a major draw for tourists.
Khartoum has an easy-going façade, but there is much hiding beneath the surface. Like any large city, Khartoum contains diversity which creates flashpoints for animosity: rich and poor, Arabs and Africans, Muslims and Christians. The situation in refugee camps and slums like Mayo is dire for the poor. Skin bleaching has become a trend in many places in Sudan as young people try to look less African in order to improve their living conditions. The Sudanese government continues a disturbing tradition of seizing Christian churches without compensating the community, repurposing or selling them for profit. These injustices are not unique to Khartoum, but the lack of legal recourse in Sudan has allowed them to become highly institutionalized.
The deserts of Sudan are wild places where civilization will always be tenuous. The desperate need for water and the fearsome aspect that nature takes here, full of scorching heat and immense sandstorms, called haboob, which block out the sun, create a profound isolation from the rest of the world. While fighting is intense in the southern part of the country, where there is water and oil in close proximity, the northern reaches see less human interference. To call the desert safe would be neither correct nor prudent, but there is freedom in not having accessible desirable resources.
Boys at a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
Building near rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
A set of traditional water jugs at a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan.
Mosque near a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
Some of the painting in the ancient Nubian tombs at El-Kurru near Karima, Sudan.
Boys at a rest stop between Khartoum and Karima, Sudan
These deserts do contain small communities, full of tenacious people. Whether it’s a scrubby rural town, a well that provides sustenance to nomadic herders, or an archaeological site preserving the glories of Sudan’s past, life depends on the wise use of water. Sets of communal jugs can be found in such places, used by humans and and their animals. The threat of illness due to the shared vessels is outweighed by the extreme danger of dehydration. Despite, or perhaps because of, the difficulties in these desert outposts, there is a certain good humor, a certain quirkiness that plays out in the juxtaposition of donkeys and Toyota trucks. Life out here is no stranger to the beauty and resilience of absurdity.
There is so much history to be seen here, evidence of the early Nubian civilizations, which built beautiful temples and pyramids; the Romans, who never quite managed to get a toehold in Nubia after conquering Egypt; the Coptic Christians who introduced Christianity and built churches; and finally the Arab travelers who brought Islam and dotted the desert with small shrines where the traveler may pray and seek temporary shelter. The Nubian desert which so resists human habitation and meddling also preserves these fragments of the past.
There are 228 known pyramids in Sudan, more than three times the number that exist in Egypt. They are smaller, more intimate tombs than their cousins in the north, but many are beautifully detailed and well preserved. None of the Sudanese sites is as well known as Meroë, an ancient city on the east bank of the Nile that served as the capital of the Kingdom of Kush for centuries. The Meroitic civilization will be the focus of our next post on Sudan, but here’s a little sample, since I promised you pyramids.
Valhalla Rising is a complex and violent film, full of beautiful, savage images and scant dialogue. What actually happens onscreen?
Nicolas Winding Refn‘s brutal tour-de-force Valhalla Rising stars Mads Mikkelsen as a mute killing machine owned by a Norse Chieftain. The Chieftain keeps him caged, barely seeing to his physical needs and trotting him out to fight to the death for money. He’s an impressive warrior, driven by a massive interior rage. Nameless, voiceless, and one-eyed, he sees visions, which help him to rebel and murder the Chieftain and his band, claiming his own freedom. A young boy (Maarten Stevenson) who fed him while he was a prisoner follows him, seeing that this strong man is the only hope he has for survival in a wild world in which he no longer has a home. This unlikely duo quickly meets up with a band of Christian converts who are embarking for the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades. Thanks to a twist of fate and a mysterious mist, they end up in the New World instead, where the morale and the newfound faith of the Christians shatter in the face of indigenous hostility and internal doubt and betrayal, while the fighter, dubbed One-Eye, undergoes a profound transformation.
This film has a great deal to say about the ambiguity of belief and the difficulty of conversion and change. It’s a bleak piece, but honest and not without a measure of hope. The main difficulty is in cracking the code and finding a way into Refn’s nonverbal language. This post is designed to delve into that language and is filled with spoilers, so I recommend watching the film first. It takes some time to digest. I’ll also admit that the ambiguity in the script leaves room for different interpretations. I would love to hear what you see.
In Norse legend, the head god Odin, also known as Wotan, forfeited one of his eyes to gain the ability to see the future. He also possessed wanderers, pouring his essence into their bodies and guiding them with his ability to see visions. We learn that One-Eye is a drifter who never remains in one place for more than five years. Odin was also a god of warlike frenzy, the kind of madness that grips One-Eye when he is faced with an opponent. As the Chieftain says, “He is driven by hate. It’s how he survives and it’s why he never loses.” For now.
The irony is that having foresight does not convey the ability to change fate, only the opportunity to take advantage of it and prepare for it. As the film progresses, we are privy to One-Eye’s visions. The screen becomes suffused in red and he seems to look out at another image of himself, curiously not a mirror image, as the absent eye stares directly at its reflection rather than being faced by a good eye. We are then treated to short clips of the next pivotal moment in One-Eye’s future, such as the finding of a lost spearhead in a pool of water– a spearhead which he will later use to escape– or his own death at the hands of native people armed with clubs.
If One-Eye is a vehicle for Odin, how do we interpret the interactions he has with other characters and the roles they represent in this grim allegory?
We have the Norsemen: violent people, afraid of the rumors of Christians coming to kill them and take their land. But it isn’t the Christians that destroy these warlords, it is the violence that they have capitalized on for many long years, symbolized by One-Eye, the surrogate of Odin. Odin has not chosen to favor the money-grubbing, cruel Norse elite, but a middle-aged slave who kills to survive, an underdog.
The next group One-Eye falls in with are the Christians. Their leader invites One-Eye to travel with them, as they could really use a killer like him to destroy infidels so that they may proclaim Christianity victorious. In return, they offer the killer salvation and forgiveness, not realizing he is an embodiment of a god they seek to destroy. These men are on their way to the Holy Land, searching for fortune and glory, which they don’t recognize as profoundly unholy things. At their core they are no different from the Norse, clinging to violence as a means of asserting control. While they may have been converted in name, they remain loveless and bloodthirsty. When the boat becomes mired in a windless mist, they revert to superstition and believe the boy traveling with One-Eye must be bringing a curse on them. As they fall on the boy in an attempt to kill him, One-Eye unleashes his lethal force to assert his dominance and save his young friend’s life.
As the mist clears, the travelers find they have sailed up the mouth of a river and are nowhere near the Holy Land. Some of the group believe they are in Hell, and that they have been taken there by One-Eye. Perhaps Odin was looking for new territory? The group’s tenuous grip on reality begins to disintegrate, perhaps infected by Odin’s madness, fear at their isolation, or by something in the mud of the riverbed. The Christians turn on one another in terrible ways, and, after constructing a cairn, One-Eye sets off with the boy on his heels. Cairns are a way of marking where you have been, for yourself and for other travelers. Who is it that Odin/One-Eye expects to follow him? Two of the Christians try to come along, but one has been mortally wounded by his best friend and the other has lost his father and cannot go on without him. Although they do not survive, these men seem to find peace, perhaps because they are hanging on to their human relationships and their compassion. All the same, death is neither easy nor beautiful.
As One-Eye and the boy reach the seashore, hoping somehow to go back home, they encounter a group of natives. These fellows have already been featured in One-Eye’s final vision, the vision of his own death. Are they enemies, or are they followers, new converts to an undetermined religion? It seems that Odin is about to use One-Eye to transform himself into the archetype of the dying god, or, perhaps, One-Eye’s hatred has finally run out. In a most Christlike and uncharacteristic fashion, One-Eye looks lovingly at the boy, reaches out to touch him, then turns and walks meekly to the native people, who raise their clubs and beat him to death. We have one last vision of One-Eye/Odin, free of his body, his spirit overseeing the scene of his own sacrifice, his journey to the New World complete. The boy looks out at the sea, knowing he can never go home, his fate uncertain.
The relationship between One-Eye and the boy drives the film. They have some sort of understanding, perhaps even a telepathic connection, as the boy is able to speak for One-Eye, who is completely mute. They are fellow travelers and sufferers and they care about each other. It is this caring that transforms gods and mortals alike into something more worthy and admirable.
Valhalla Rising makes the case that these Pagans and Christians alike are cruel men, born in a cruel time, trying to exert their cultural dominance over one another. The Christians are stand-ins for the Crusaders, who, when they could no longer sustain a “Holy War” in Palestine, turned to the Americas and brought their honed taste for torture and death with them, still doing horrors in the name of God. No creed will save humanity. The only hope is that we may be transformed and redeemed by love and compassion.
I am reminded of a verse from the Bible, I John 4:8, which states that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” The people that know God are not always the people you would expect. They are the people that, in the end, choose love, not violence, even if that means their own death.
The power of the spoken word and the captured image can be woven together in a way that evades description.
I thought I had finished synkroniciti’s short cycle on Yemen, when I ran across this beautiful poem by Yemeni poet Dr. Abdulaziz Al Maqaleh read so sensitively by Sarah Ahmed. It is a lament for the city of Sana’a, the longtime capital of Yemen, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It reduced me to tears.
The soft, sensual sibilance of Arabic, the restrained elegance of Tony Anderson‘s Ember, which makes a perfect musical backdrop, and the moving images of Sana’a and its residents, especially the young girls in white dresses running freely among the growing flowers and the crumbling ruins, imbue this short film with deep longing, nostalgia and hope.
May we hold this lovely city and its people in our thoughts. Even more, may we work to end participation in her destruction. Thank you to director Abdurahman Hussain and all who worked on this stunning piece of documentary video. You can read more about Hussain here. Such splendid, human work.
I hope one day that I will be able to visit this incredible, resilient city and to pay her and her citizens respect. Peace!
If you would like to read more of our series on Yemen please check out these links:
Muslim women are frequently shortchanged by stereotypes. How do artists help to change minds and destroy prejudice?
I have selected the work of two female photographers, Boushra Almutawakel and Yumna Al-Arashi, and two male painters, Hakim Alakel and Mazher Nizar, to show us the face of Muslim women. All of these artists are of Yemeni blood and wrap up synkroniciti’s series on Yemen.
Recently I posted about the difficulty of being female in Yemen today and how current attitudes toward women do not square with the history of the nation, a place ruled in the past by Muslim Queens. You can read that post by clicking here. This post explores how those ultra conservative attitudes make their mark on the Yemeni soul and how they impact the way Yemeni artists, male and female, seek to portray the female form.
No exploration of the feminine in Yemen is complete without acknowledging and unpacking the hijab, the head covering worn by many, but not all, Muslim women around the world. The graphic below illustrates just a small portion of the diversity in female coverings in the Muslim world. There is a great deal of variety and opportunity for self-expression.
Boushra Almutawakel was born in 1969 in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. She earned a BSBA in International Business at American University in Washington, DC, where she also fell in love with photography and worked as a photojournalist for the university paper and yearbook. Returning to Yemen in 1994, she became an educational adviser, but kept taking pictures and participating in exhibitions until embarking on a career in photography in 1998. Professional female photographers were unheard of in Yemen at the time. She balances her own projects with photography for magazines, charitable and cultural organizations and has garnered an international reputation for her insightful work. Boushra served as a cultural advisor for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington and later worked at the Ministry for Human Rights in Sana’a, specializing in women’s rights. She moved to France with her husband and children in 2013.
Her Hijab Series employs feminine humor and dignity to take aim at prejudice against Muslim women in both Eastern and Western culture. You can see more of this series as well as other works on Boushra’s website.
“I first started the series on the hijab/veil while attending photography school, where I attended a lecture by the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal Elsadawi. At that lecture she said that she felt that women who wore the hijab/veil or nigab were the same as women who wore makeup, in the sense that they all hid their true identities. I thought that was a fascinating perspective, and so decided to interpret this photographically.”
“In this ongoing project on the hijab/veil I want to explore the many faces and facets of the veil based on my own personal experiences and observations: the convenience, freedom, strength, power, liberation, limitations, danger, humor, irony, variety, cultural, social, and religious aspects, as well as the beauty, mystery, and protection. The hijab/veil as a form of self-expression; the veil as not solely an Arab Middle Eastern phenomenon, the trends, the history and politics of the hijab/veil, as well as differing interpretations, and the fear in regards to the hijab/veil.”
“Mother, Daughter, Doll”
“A lot of people think that covered women are oppressed, backwards and uneducated. That is far from the truth. But at the same time I can’t hear very well if I am veiled and I can’t see the lips of women wearing the niqab. The biggest problem I have is with children being covered—there is nothing Islamic about that. I prefer our traditional veils which are colourful and more open. The black we’ve imported from the Gulf and the Wahhabis—with gloves and the rest of it—is too much.”-Boushra Almutawakel
Hakim Alakel was born in the artistic city of Ta’izz in 1965. He studied first in Yemen under the famous master artist Ali Hashim, following up at Moscow State Academy in Russia, where he graduated with a Master of Arts degree cum laude, specializing in frescoes, art history and conceptual art. There is a marked Art Nouveau influence in his lush and colorful paintings, which are on display all over the world. Learn more about Hakim and his paintings here. A large figure on the Yemeni cultural scene who has worked as a Professor of Art, a magazine contributor and critic, a consultant for the restoration of Yemeni architecture, a coordinator for children’s art and theater projects and much more, Hakim now lives in Jordan. The irony is that the elimination of his duties with the Yemeni Ministry of Culture, which is unable to operate in a country torn by war, has freed him to return to painting, imbued with a profound sense of nostalgia.
Hakim’s paintings recall city life in Yemen before the civil war, when communities functioned and family life was not dogged by death and warfare. There is a palpable longing for the emotional stability and simplicity of that time. Sleeping or awake, pensive or free-spirited, regal or humorous, the women he paints have personalities which are only rivaled by his vivid use of color. He must have had great affection for the women in his life to render them with such humanity and honesty.
“In my work, I depend on a range of aesthetic references, especially Yemeni ones, which form the basis of my artistic language. These include architecture, clothing, and other aspects of Yemen’s huge cultural inheritance, which goes back to 5000 B.C. and continues to the present day. This cultural heritage, especially its urban aspects, influences me greatly, and I feel that the Yemeni city lives inside me.”
“These cities, and their inhabitants, whether in Sana’a, the capital, or other cities, form a primary reference for my work… the clothing, the weather, the nature, and the environment. You’ll find the Yemeni women actually form the main inspiration for my art work. They are unique in their style, their vision, their dress… and there is also a certain kind of silence in their faces. I see these women as symbols and representations of the larger environment in which they live.”-Hakim Alakel
Traditionally, Yemeni women have dressed in bright colors and patterns. Most favored a bright cotton hijab rather than the burka or niqab, but those days have faded in the cities, where women are arrested for being on the street without permission and bullied for not being “properly covered”. Women in smaller villages, such as those picturesque towns in the Haraz Mountains that I have spoken about in an earlier post, still tend to dress in this fashion. It is good to have artists remembering and witnessing to better times. Maybe one day those good things can be restored and even bettered.
Born of a Yemeni family in Mumbai, India in 1958, Mazher Nizar came home to Yemen in 1985 after receiving his Diploma in Graphic Art from the Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata. He lives in Sana’a and is frequently inspired by the Old City. Mazher’s paintings hearken back to the Queen of Sheba, blending Arabic and Yemeni motifs and elements with a romantic Indian painting style. He has exhibited his work across Europe and Asia, as well as Canada. His decision to remain in Sana’a through the Civil War and share his art online through his Facebook account have inspired many Yemeni to hold on to hope. You can see more of his work on his website.
The feminine “inspired me a lot because it was hidden, and something hidden creates imagination, and imagination is good for the artist to go on and on with.”
“It was very good for me to paint on the Queen of Sheba, and I started painting ordinary woman as a Queen. It became fact that all my women became very spiritual and they were very out of this world. They are not portraits of any particular women, they are just women of my expressions, how I feel them.”
Mazher is inspired by women and believes them to be more spiritual in nature than men. Rather than seeing the covered woman as a victim, he sees her as an exalted mystery. If she is not completely human it is because she is superhuman- a mythological force which nurtures hope, symbolized by flowers and birds- not because she is in any way inferior. Veiling her stokes her desirability and spirituality, heightening romance. This is lovely, although there is a certain loneliness in being mythical.
Born in Washington, DC in 1988, the child of a diplomat, Yumna Al-Arashi was in middle school when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 struck. Overnight, she became subject to intense intimidation and bullying stemming from misguided hatred in the wake of tragedy. I recommend you read her moving experience here. Yumna holds a Bachelors Degree in International Politics with an emphasis on the Middle East from the New School in New York City and is now a documentary photographer who has lived and worked in many places around the world. She has worked with prestigious cultural organizations and magazines and has exhibited her own projects in the United States, the Middle East and London. You can see her credentials and more of her beautiful work on her website. Her work does a fantastic job of unifying the mythological feminine with the human.
from Northern Yemen
from Northern Yemen
“There’s this prevalent idea of a woman who is covering her hair or her body as totally oppressed, and that’s never a viewpoint I’ve agreed with,” explains Al-Arashi, who is Muslim and grew up in Washington, D.C. “My whole life I’ve been surrounded by Muslim women who cover themselves, and they’re such badasses and have such incredible depth—as much as any of the uncovered women I’ve met. As a Muslim woman, you’re often boxed into a single identity. I wanted to shift that stereotype.”
from Northern Yemen
“I wanted people to see that there is a Muslim woman that exists that can be comfortable with her body and who still supports other women who are covered, who thinks that’s okay.”
“I believe that controlling sexuality is the root of controlling all power in a society. To be able to openly bring a woman’s sexuality to light is an incredibly important step in expressing a woman’s freedom and humanity. Discussions of sexuality shouldn’t be taboo, and my hope is to be able to open the forum for further thought on the issue.”-Yumna Al-Arashi
Presided over by Queens in ancient and medieval times, modern Yemen has been called the worst place to be female.
Women in Yemen are encouraged to stay home rather than going to school or work. Almost half of Yemeni women are married by the age of eighteen and child brides are common. Many have no identification and don’t vote, although technically they are eligible to do so under the constitution. Leaving the house requires the permission of a male family member and very few women drive (until recently driving while female was a crime).
A woman’s voice in Yemeni courts is worth half of that of a man, so to equal a man’s testimony it takes two women. Women may not testify at all in cases of slander, theft, adultery or sodomy. If a woman wants to end her marriage for any reason, even if her husband is beating her, she must obtain his consent for the case to be presented.
This seems an especially cruel reality when you consider the history of Yemen. This is a people who remain fiercely proud to call the Queen of Sheba their ancestor. Perhaps the most beloved ruler of Yemen is the medieval Queen Arwa, a Muslim woman who buried two husbands and went on to rule for decades on her own, creating peace, prosperity and stability in her nation.
Queen Arwa al-Sulayhi was born in 1048 in the Haraz Mountains, a fertile area of picturesque villages and mountainsides terraced for farming. Her parents died when she was young, and her Aunt, the formidable Queen Asma, who ruled alongside her husband, Caliph Ali al-Sulayhi, brought her to the palace in Sana’a to be raised. Asma was known as al-Sayyida al-Hurrat-ul, “The noble lady who is free and independent, the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.” She recognized in Arwa a woman who could be heir to that title.
Arwa proved to be brilliant, with a great mind for history, poetry and stories. A devout Muslim, she became a scholar of the Quran and Hadith (the latter being a collection of reports and stories which describe the life and habits of Muhammad). When the time came for Prince Ahmad al-Mukarram to be married, Queen Asma was set on Arwa. In 1067, Caliph Ali was assassinated and Arwa became Queen, ruling alongside her husband and mother-in-law. She was nineteen years old.
As time wore on, Asma died and Caliph Ahmad became paralyzed and bedridden, so all power passed to Arwa in 1086. She moved the capital from cosmopolitan Sana’a to the smaller city of Jibla, where she felt more in control, and was able to avenge her father-in-law’s murder. She had a new palace built, converting an older palace into a mosque where she would later be buried. Arwa attended state councils with men, refusing to conduct meetings while hidden by a screen, although she did wear a veil, unlike Queen Asma, who had been older and bolder when she came into power. Arwa would have time to grow her boldness.
When Caliph Ahmad died in 1091, Arwa was advised to marry his cousin, Saba ibn Ahmad to cement her power. This she did, but the marriage remained a reality in name only and her second husband died ten years after the first. From 1101 to 1138 she ruled alone. She had four children by her first marriage, none of whom outlived their mother, making her the last ruler of the Sulayhid dynasty. Arwa founded many schools, improved roads and took an active role in encouraging agriculture, which created a robust economy.
Not only was Arwa respected as the sovereign ruler of Yemen, she was the first woman to be proclaimed hujjat, proof or demonstration of Allah, her life sanctified as a sign pointing to God. She sent Shia missionaries to India and built many mosques. During her lifetime, prayers were proclaimed in her name; after her death, her grave became a place of pilgrimage. Much more than a ruler; she became a beacon of truth and an individual to emulate and revere.
Arwa’s story is a powerful reminder that there have always been strong women in the Muslim faith. It is also a warning that attitudes and cultures are never uniform and can change dramatically. In a place where a woman ruled and was declared to be close to God, a majority of women are not even allowed to go to school. Arwa would be appalled.
This is the first post of a series exploring foreign cultures. We begin with Yemen, focusing not on the bloodshed and the destruction wreaked upon her, but the humanity and beauty that make her both vulnerable and resilient. I’ll be posting more about the culture and arts of Yemen later this week.
The images that follow were graciously shared online by Rod Waddington, yeowatzup and Valerian Guillot, who have made most of their illuminating and risky work available with Creative Commons Licenses. Click on the captions beneath the the photo collages to see their full albums and link to more of their images. Synkroniciti is indebted to the generosity and boldness of these travelers and artists. Please follow their magnificent output on Flickr.
As I curated these sets of people, places and animals, which date from 2010 to 2016, I could not help but wonder what has been lost in these few years. Are these buildings still standing? What has become of these people, especially these bright, playful children? I had to stop several times in my gathering to mourn the innocence and beauty that has surely been changed, if not destroyed. The human and cultural price in Yemen is very high.
Travel to Yemen is not suggested nor is it easily feasible, as the Yemeni Civil War and the presence of Al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as airstrikes (Saudi and American), make it a dangerous place for anyone, particularly Westerners, who have been detained and kidnapped. Mismanaged from within and exploited from without, it is a place that is lost to the outside world. Some might think that the poorest country in the region, a desert nation without an oil industry, doesn’t hold much. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a beautiful country, with fantastic architecture and a long, proud history.
Faces of Yemen
Yemen lies on the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, near the crossroad of three continents, along trade routes that cross both land and sea. This has made Yemenis a very diverse group. Some trace their roots to Africa, especially the northern Sahara, some to Persia, ancient Israel or other nations, ancient or modern, on the Arabian Peninsula, while others hail from India and South Asia. There also Yemeni of European descent, particularly Russian and eastern European.
The vast majority are Muslim, but Christians, Jews and others have a place in the culture, although the advent of more extreme fundamentalism has strained that somewhat. You will notice that women’s faces are under-represented. All women are encouraged to cover up, regardless of faith, in order to avoid negative attention. Photographing women in Yemen can be risky and is discouraged. This is an uncomfortable truth for a nation that counts two prominent Queens in its history, the biblical Queen of Sheba and the beloved Queen Arwa, who ruled from her early twenties until she died at the age of 92.
Note the gentleman below wearing the jambiya, a ceremonial curved dagger that is a symbol of male honor and status in many Arab countries. They are worn on expensive belts and many of the hilts are made from precious substances such as jade or ivory.
The favored pet in Muslim households is the cat, admired for its cleanliness and beloved by the Prophet. Cats are commonly considered indoor animals while dogs are kept outdoors. It is said that Muhammad once cut a sleeve off of his robe rather than awaken his cat Muezza, who had fallen asleep on it while he prayed. It is good to know that cats have remained constant throughout time and across cultures!
Sana’a, the largest city in Yemen, and until recently the capital, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet. It has been a seat of power for much of that time, presided over by Sabaean (from Sheba) rulers, Himyarite Kings (who converted from polytheism to Judaism), Ethiopian Viceroys, Muslim Caliphs, local Imams of the Zaydi tribe and Ottoman Turks, who took the city twice over the span of a few centuries. Yemen includes four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the old city of Sana’a. Some of the buildings in Old Sana’a, including the Grand Mosque, are over 1,400 years old. There are more than 100 mosques, 12 bath houses and around 6,500 residences. These homes are several stories tall with flat roofs and elaborate decorative elements. The architecture is unique and lovely.
The Romans called Yemen Arabia Felix, “Happy Arabia”, because the country has a great deal of fertile ground. For centuries, much of the food for the Arabian Peninsula was grown in Yemen, which was also world-renowned for growing coffee. If you are a coffee drinker, you may enjoy coffee mocha, named for the fabled medieval port that distributed it to the world. Mocha, or Mokha, isn’t much to look at now, as it was upstaged by other Yemeni ports long ago. Recent damage has plunged Mokha even deeper into poverty, but coffee is still grown in the Haraz Mountain region of Yemen, known as Jabal Haraz. Terraced farms are visible on the mountainsides and fortified villages cling to rocky mountaintops. Long ago, in order to break the Yemeni monopoly on coffee, Westerners stole plants from this region and transplanted them into their own countries.
Away from the mainland lies Socotra Island and the tiny islands of Abd al Kuri, Samhah and Darsa. Together with a few rocky outcrops that support seabirds, these islands make up the Socotran Archipelago, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a tough, isolated life for those who live out here, but it is probably safer than any of the mainland cities.
Approximately one third of the plant life here is endemic, occurring naturally nowhere else on the globe. The Dragon’s Blood Tree, Dracaena cinnabari, and the Bottle Tree, Adenium obesum, are the most striking of these plants. Socotra was occupied by some of the earliest humans during the Lower Paleolithic Period (1.7 to 2.6 million years ago) when it was attached to the mainland.
There are many inscriptions in the rocks of the island, most in Brāhmī script, which was used across south Asia and India, while others are in South Arabian, Ethiopic, Greek, Palmyrene and Bactrian. Socotra was once an important landmark and stopover for boats moving from the Arabian Sea into the Indian Ocean and vice versa.
In addition to mountains and beautiful white sand beaches, Socotra features a karst region with stunning limestone caves.
Here we will stop, although there are many more wonderful places in Yemen, including stunning Taiz with its walls and gardens and lovely Jibla, where “Little Sheba”, the powerful Muslim Queen Arwa ruled for more than seventy years. Her story is a story for a different post.
It is humbling to realize that Yemen was a sophisticated place in better days, a reminder that poverty and lawlessness are never as distant from the human experience as we would like them to be. May this terrible conflict end before more is lost.