Where Gods Whisper

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.  

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



I like the idea that there are places on earth where the sacred does away with frontiers. Areas, instants and auras in which the People of the Book reveal their kinship and their place in the human family, with or without the Book. There is dancing, bodies touch, relics are stroked. Crossing the sill between the sacred and the profane, between light and shadow. And there is more: endless repetitions, deferential prostrations, fingered rosary beads. It’s all about places, sounds, gestures, atmospheres, robes, lights, paths, which can expose the shared truth about things abruptly and painfully.

We like to use the word atmosphere. “Greek and Latin,” wrote Elémire Zolla, “use the word ‘spell,’ which is like a wind, an aura emanating from people and places, which grows, swells, turns into a whirl, a haze, a squall, a brightening cloud, a golden glow, as it stuns us, knocks us out.” I can feel a similar aura in the tender rocking of Our Father in Christ’s language on the banks of the Euphrates, in the emergence of the quint harmony from the storm of Rebbe Nachman’s Hassidic voices in Galilee, in the hypnotic vocalizations and deep sighing of the Chishti Sufis in Kabul, in the Shabbes prayer in Antioch. “Lutes are we, and Thou the player sounding through them/Art Thou not He who groaneth in our groaning?” wrote Jalaluddin Rumi.

And so for many years now I have been traveling in the borderlands of monotheisms to hospitable oases, free havens of faith besieged by armed fanaticisms, to the lost motherlands of today’s refugees. Such as the sanctuaries of Sufi mystics, which are being obliterated by bombs from Mali to Pakistan. The Sufi teachers—despised by the Wahhabites, ignored by the enlightened reformers of Islam and by the West—must be the most solid anti-barbarian bedrock. Their books fill libraries, even though they favor experience over theory, and call practice the way and the fanatic “a donkey hauling a stack of books on its back.” It is thanks to them that poor people’s Islam has gone into raptures over divine mercy, sensual experiences and sensitivity to beauty.

These are the asylums of faith: the Bosphorus, where Armenian and Turkish women settle down to sleep next to each other at the tomb of a Byzantine saint as they practice incubation, which was chronicled already before Herodotus; they use sleep to anaesthetize the memory of genocide that comes between them. The monasteries in the Egyptian desert, which are assaulted by fanatics day in day out, where Abuna Fanous hears out the dreams of Bedouin shepherds, who wait their turn for hours in the sun. Kosovo, where Muslims honor the ill-starred Serbian saint, King Stephen, who was blinded by his own father and killed by his own son. Damascus, where Christians and Muslims, both Shia and Sunni, pray together, shoulder to shoulder, at John the Baptist’s catafalque in the Umayyad Mosque and at the foot of Christ’s minaret. The Deir Mar Musa monastery, also in wretched Syria, whose stones were put back in their places by Christians and Muslims, since hadn’t they been praying here together for ten centuries? The lands where people have communed for millennia, where the chains of vendettas snap, where people share food, friends, dreams and songs. The borderlands of oikoumene, so distant from gods’ thrones and world’s navels. The asylums of infidels and the intersections of caravan trade routes, where dervishes’ and poets’ sandals also tread.

Year after year we fill the calendar of the sacred with anniversaries of saints’ births and deaths, the mysteries of fertility and all souls’ days, pilgrimages and offerings, walking and crawling, in a cycle that follows the movements of the clock hands clockwise or anticlockwise. Selected hours, seasons, solstices, equinoxes, which cut through the knots of time: Persian, Roma, Jewish, Ethiopian. The world’s traveling breviary follows the sun’s path, synchronizes with lunar phases, marking the eternal rhythm of return: one more time, all over again every year, every seven years, for forty days.

One day in Jerusalem, as I was looking out a window at the wall that sliced into my monk hosts’ garden near the Mount of Olives, I thought: how does one orient oneself so as not to get lost, so as not to go mad amongst all the calendars and epochs, the countless signs, gauges, the left-to-right and up-and-down alphabets. The wall had a life of its own as it shifted, grew and stretched. At night shadows passed through the needle’s eye of a slit in it—to fetch the accoucheuse, to visit a wife or to get to the synagogue for the Jewish morning prayers—like its custodian, the Muslim Awni Amarneh from Bethlehem, father of eight. Palestinians sneaked through the wall at night, to make life bearable somehow, and I crossed the Holy City’s invisible walls that divide the believers in Abraham’s sisterly religions. In day- time, in disguise, like a chameleon, in stage costumes. One day the hole was sealed, and I suddenly began to feel that these calendars, autonomous and filled with delusions of reference, wipe each other out somewhere, overlap and mesh like the gears of a chronometer, between which the living and the dead can now move freely, without needing to go through checkpoints. And the road and the experience are now drawing a living map of the world outside history. At times history comes out into the open and, like a coded medieval codex, exposes the instants when gods are living in harmony. The instants of unobvious encounters. Elias becomes the Green Prophet al-Khidr, Muslims and Christians in the Balkans worship Saint George on horseback, Muslim women in Istanbul and Cairo pray to Mary. The list of the duplicated identities of saints, both major and minor, is long. Once, on the day of Imam Hussein, Jewish Pesach merges with Christian Easter and, for the first time in nearly half a millennium, Anno Domini 2015, Muslims celebrate the eve of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed on the same night as Christ is born. Concurrences, coincidences. And yet (how strange to have to bring it up today), religions have reflected one another for centuries, they have borrowed gestures, tunes, customs and saints from each other, just as good neighbors lend one another salt.

As I reminisce about the most intense and mysterious moments of this journey, I realize that they form a cohesive and solid whole, a continuity that we have forgotten how to observe in our addiction to the superficial impression of divisive cataclysm— the clash of civilizations, someone would readily suggest today. The saints disagree. A good saint can be everyone’s saint. The body, this vehicle for prayer, this antenna that detects the invisible, through which the divine rejects limitations and hierarchies and attracts the intolerance and sexophobia of the new, armed, exclusive monotheisms, disagrees. With the blade of experience plunged into it, the body dances, loves, says its prayers, twirls, laughs and cries, bows, goes into ecstasies, submits and gives of itself, lends and serves. The places that are rich in symbols, where believers in new religions nest like hermit crabs in abandoned shells, disagree.

I travel alone, for solitude, devoid of filters and protections, is crucial to encounters, which are always the path to people and into the midst of people. But I do have faithful travel companions: the hurry and the trepidation that I will be late. And there are times when I am late. Or am I slating places for elimination? They are too vulnerable not only when they come upon fanaticisms, but also when commercialism appears to transform holy sites into photographers’ funfairs. So it’s better to erase names, dates, paths, to use invisible ink to write keywords on this unearthly map that takes no notice of the walls being erected by the holy men and the heroes of the global war. From the heart of Asia to Latin America, from the sources of the Nile to the mouth of the Onega River. In those places where signs, presences, gestures and looks emerge from monotheisms’ dark shadows. Africa, or actually Africas, with its deities who are exiled like humans, the bosom of living archetypes, where religion (literally “bonds”) is built on the communion of the living and the dead, on the neverending dialogue with the ancestors. The places where words have not been disconnected from objects and that, like ancient Greece, are inhabited by gods in the image of humans.

The sacred waters of the Caribbean. The black rocks of the Atlas. The cosmic pillars in Afghanistan. Zaddiks’ homes. Sheikhs’ homes. Poets’ tombs. The Volkhvs’ caves. The Malangs’ paths. Shamans’ tents. Nomads’ tents. The paths of their seasonal migrations. Copses and springs of the sacred in the world’s hinterlands. Refuges. Caves in the mountains of Lebanon and in Iranian Kurdistan. The Old Believers of the Danube’s delta. The buried valleys of the Caucasus, where the priguns jump sky-high just like the Sufis and Hassids. Bridges that are places, like the one on the little Grajcarek River near Cracow, which, as the artist Jerzy Nowosielski said, was the border between Byzantium and Rome, something the barbarians would not understand. Places where for centuries words have been passed from mouth to mouth for safekeeping, and with them knowledge about beginnings, metaphors of initiations and transformations, recipes for survival. Places that are “cleansed” with bombs, that are “out of service” after the latest slaughter of innocents, that are reviled from pulpits, made light of or, at best, mocked. Sacred crossings, junctions at which paths set out into the deepest depths of mirrors.

translated from the Polish language by Maya Latynski

Monika Bulaj. Viaggio nella spiritualità di periferia, Tg3 Nel Mondo con Maria Cuffaro

Prayers of the persecuted around the world, by James Estrin, Lens Blogs The New York Times

Le schegge in bianco e nero di Monika Bulaj sono le anime delle genti di Dio
portfolio, di Giuseppe Fantasia, Huffingtonpost 

Inquadrare brezze celesti, di Laura Leonelli, Il Sole 24 Ore

Radio3 “Qui comincia” di Attilio Scarpellini

Radio3 Fahrenheit

The thrill of the border,  interview of Michele Smargiassi, La Repubblica

A possible coexistence between East and West,  video

Ai confini della fede, dove il sacro è gioia, di Federica Salzano, Il Messaggero

Il divino quotidiano, di Manuela de Leonardis, Il Manifesto

Luoghi d’incontro tra le religioni, di Gaetano Vallini, Osservatore Romano

Les lamentations de Déméter, par Monika Bulaj, photographe, by Fabien Ribery 

Ciò che è vivo non ha copie, di Silvia Guidi, Osservatore Romano