A travel through the final remaining oases where faiths meet, free zones besieged by armed fanatics, homelands lost of the fugitives today. Places where gods tend to speak the same lingua franca and where, behind the monotheisms, signs, presences, gestures, dances and gazes emerge. In a word: mankind, its beauty, its inviolable sacredness, obstinately sought even in the unhappiest places on the planet, following the sun, moon, seasons, cults and pilgrimages, in a “celestial map” that ignores the barriers built by the advocators of global conflict. A parallel and untold world stretching from central Asia, to Latin America and on to Russia and the Middle East, bringing beauty back to contamination: the Dionysian rituals of Muslims in the Maghreb, the lament of the dead in the Balkans, pilgrimages in the mud of the Urals, the evocation of the gods in oversea exile, on the tracks of the “traffickers” of times past, in the Caribbean, where the spiritual power of the homeland becomes voodoo, santeria, mystical rap, samba, epithalamium and mystery. And the trail of nomads in Asia, who carry their divinity with them, like seagulls following a fishing boat in the desert. 11th September 2001 – today
The direction of my work has changed over time. I began by documenting the minor and major religions that dwell in the shadows of yesterday’s and today’s wars and in the charred remains they leave behind. But as I carried on, it was my photographs that began to find me, to tell me about praying and dreaming, fire and water, memory, the scarf and the dance, passion and incarnation, the routes traveled by songs…
And so what I do today is all simplicity, child’s play. I retrieve the pieces of a shattered mirror, countless crumbs, bits that don’t fit together, splinters, particles, bricks from the Tower of Babel. Perhaps a photographer can do no more than gather up the pieces of a mosaic that no one will ever finish, put them down the way she thinks is right (or perhaps the only way it can be done), as she continues to fantasize, in vain, about creating a picture of the world that is whole, that may exist somewhere or perhaps that existed somewhere once but is now lost, just like Adam’s language.
translated by Maya Latynski
There are times and places in which the sacred can transcend borders; times and places of high tension, where the people of the Book – Jews, Christians, Muslims – reveal a shared sense of belonging. It occurs when the faithful repeat the same prayer like a thunderbolt, or when one falls between the inside and the outside of a sacred place. You see it between light and shadow, in rhythmic dances at the limits of ecstasy, in the masses of pilgrims that oscillate like stretches of algae in the sea, in the contact between bodies, or between bodies and relics. You feel it in the crossing of over-crowded or completely empty spaces, in refrains, in sighs, in genuflections, in the clinking of rosary beads. Places, gestures, clothing, lights, and paths unveil strong analogies between the monotheistic faiths, demonstrating all the power that is held in just one Word.
«In Greek and Latin», wrote Ellemire Zolla, «fascination looks like a breeze, an aura given off by people and places, that at times grows to become a whirlwind, a nimbus, a dazzling haze, a golden reverberation that engulfs and dazes». Here, in this book, I want to talk about the auras that I experienced amidst the people of the Book, the people of the only God; those that Muslims call “ahel el katab”. I do not care to describe choreographic or gestural analogies, but atmospheric similarities. There is much to suggest that the crowd that rocks and sighs in unison in an Orthodox church full of candles communicates much the same emotion that you will find in a temple of the mystical Sufis in Istanbul, or during a ritual conducted by Hasidic Jews.
The chronology of my movements between Gibraltar and Persia – kept in a diary I perfect year after year – follows chosen anniversaries of births or deaths of saints and prophets, and reveals a matrix of surprising parallelisms. Elijah becomes “Al Khidr, the Green One” amongst Muslims; Saint George on horseback is celebrated in the Balkans by Christians and Islamists alike; at the feet of Madonnas, Greek-Orthodox, Muslim, Neapolitan and Istanbul women gather. There is the recurrence of certain themes: the Son of God’s rise into heaven, or the ascension of bare-footed Armenians on their knees to the top of the mountain blackened by candles; the festivities of fecundity and death, of the end of one year and the beginning of another – whether Gypsy, Persian or Jewish, it doesn’t matter.
The sacred calendar, in the three religions of the Book, follows – if closely observed – the same rhythm of the eternal return: the sun, the moon, the seasons, seven years and forty days, and often the night before are more important than the festivity itself. The Armenian and Turkish women who predict the future through their dreams experienced whilst sleeping on the grave of a prophet in the Bosporus Mountains, for example, resemble in many ways the Russian pilgrims crouching in the dark, with candles and saintly relics, in the Carpathian Mountains, or the Tuaregh women dressed up for a night of prayer on the sacred cairns of the desert.
If I were to select the most intense and mysterious moments that I had experienced, not only do they overcome those walls built up by acolytes and theologians, but their succession becomes a solid and coherent whole. They reveal a continuity that we have trained ourselves not to observe, conditioned as we are by the cataclysm of superficial impression – which these days we call “clash of civilizations” – dividing us. The same thing occurs when I think in terms of places. If they are sacred, then they are sacred for all. In the same way, a good saint is good for all. Not to mention the motions of prayer, the use of the body as a medium to communicate with the Beyond. The body contains in itself the secret of the collective past. The body doesn’t lie. Faith passes through the body, piercing it. In the archaic nature of gestures one cannot read the horrific history of forced confessions in articulo mortis, or those exhorted in the clashing of swords, in the sign of the Crescent Moon. They portray only the arcane wisdom of a people, the search for liberation through the learned use of the senses. Take, for example, the mechanic repetition of a single phrase, carried out until the words lose their meaning and it is only the repetition itself that throws open wide the doors to heaven. I pursue, in short, the mystery of passionate devotion that “official” culture has stamped as devotio stulta, in all its popular, folkloric and elated nature. I look at the manifestations of faith expressed by illiterati et idiotae, mystics and poets, the saintly and the illiterate. These are who I call “the people of God”; the nepioi, or infants of the Gospel, the spiritual poor.
And then there is the Book itself. The foundation of the Christian faith, a cult object passed down through generations, stubbornly defended during hard times of persecution, adorned with pearls, saved from the burning stake, scraped by ice, even hidden underground. Or there is the great book of the Muslim world, which on the contrary can never touch the ground; a book studied from the end, from the clear-cut concepts of the final Suras of the Al Koran, which open the difficult road to the Beginning. And we must also consider the Talmud, with its extraordinary writing, a frame of annotations, one text that revolves around another, enveloping it, fitting into it. A labyrinth of meanings in which – differently from the Koran – every single word, every minute inscription must be covered and hidden, because the word is like man and needs interment.
The prayers of the Tartars were written on folded sheets and slipped into the ground of burial sites, so that the dead might hear their whisper. The books of fleeing Armenians, similarly, were hidden in the crevices of rocks, blood-stained and buried like flags of retreating armies. Some as small as postal stamps and others – enormous trunks of wisdom and calligraphy, they were the most precious goods saved from the mass destruction, carried away on shoulders – like those of the two old ladies – across the Anatolian deserts to the safe Caucasus Mountains.
The Book of all books is written not by God but by men who have heard His voice and the voice of the angels, men who have heard the Word in the midst of many other words – the prophetic message that inhabits and grows in the soul. It can sweep you away when the conscience blanks for a split second, producing fear, fever, ecstasy, or folly. Like the time, when an illiterate shepherd, named Mohammed, listened to the words of an angel in the darkness, and was able to dictate them in a loud and clear voice.
This is aura: millenary, elusive, unmistakable.
Translated by Anna Bissanti
Prayers of the Persecuted Around the World, by James Estrin, Lens Blogs The New York Times
Inquadrare brezze celesti, by Laura Leonelli, Il Sole 24 Ore
The thrill of the border, interview of Michele Smargiassi, La Repubblica
A possible coexistence between East and West, video