Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Women of the Wakhan Corridor In Afghanistan...

Photo by Matthieu Paley. This morning, I woke up thinking of those places where life is harsh but beautiful. The heart of the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan. Outside, the men are rounding up the animals. The mountain spirits are cold and quiet in winter. Inside, tea is prepared and there is a moment.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Veiled Feminism Of Moroccan-Born Photographer Lalla Essaydi...

In his landmark book, Orientalism, the late scholar Edward Said wrote of "exteriority," a disconnect between the traveler's fantasies and reality. Reading the travelogues of French writers, Said once explained that he found "representations of the Orient had very little to do with what I knew about my own background in life."
lalla essaydi
From Bullet, by Lalla Essaydi.
The work of photographer Lalla Essaydi sits somewhere inside the gaps Said felt so keenly. Part of a new wave of Moroccan artists enjoying success under the liberalized reign of King Mohammed VI (who holds some of Essaydi's pieces in his private collection), she lives in New York City and works from her family home in Morocco, a large and elaborate house dating back to the 16th century. The portraits she shoots inside -- always of women -- recall 19th century French depictions of Arab concubines, popularly known as odalisques.
In Essaydi's portraits, you can see the ghost of the naked odalisque -- objectified even in being termed. But Essaydi's women show little flesh. They gaze into the camera, as if challenging the viewer directly. Some look positively regal, like the women in her "Bullet" series, who wear a sort of chain metal she fashioned out of flattened bullets.
lalla essaydi
From Bullet Revisited, by Lalla Essaydi.
Stretches of the body not hidden under fabric are obscured by calligraphy drawn on by Essaydi herself, script that she calls "deliberately indecipherable." In much of the Arab world, calligraphy is traditionally taught exclusively to men. Essaydi uses the art form as a way to dismantle preconceptions of what women can do or be. Having trained herself in it, she adorns much of her set with henna, a dye associated with weddings and femininity. The text is a mishmash of words loosely inspired by conversations on identity she has with her subjects, who are often family members and friends. In an email to HuffPost, she explained that she writes unintelligibly, so as to throw into question distinctions between "the visual and the textual, along with the European assumption that text constitutes the best access to reality."
lalla essaydi
From Harem, by Lalla Essaydi.
She is largely inspired by the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, a foundational 19th century Orientalist painter who famously depicted slave markets and bathhouses based on his travels to Egypt. Gérôme belonged to a tradition rooted in England and France, countries with colonies in the Middle East. For these painters working before the popularization of the camera, the aim was partly to create a historic record of the dishes, fauna, and other stuff of life so far from the West, yet still possessed by it. Along the way, they indulged in fantasies, often to do with Arab women.
lalla essaydi
From Les Femmes du Maroc Revisited, by Lalla Essaydi.
Meanwhile, Essaydi actually grew up in a technical harem; her father had multiple wives. It was while pursuing an MFA in Boston that she first encountered the Romantic documentation of her world. She saw little to relate to in the sensual scenes of half-naked women lounging on divans. Her home life had been domestic, full of children running through the halls, and moms attending to housework. Though centuries stood between her childhood and Gérôme's travels, she knew the naked bodies of harem wives were never items to be displayed. Compelled to reconcile Gérôme's vision with her reality, she began turning out bizarro, pointed reworkings of the fantasy.
lalla essaydi
From Harem, by Lalla Essaydi.
In her email, Essaydi describes a long and intensive art making process, starting with months of henna work. She and her subjects then typically "spend weeks together in old family homes, reflecting on our status as Arab women." The shoots are often held in rooms traditionally meant only for men. Simply to exist inside them can be a moving experience for the women, which Essaydi considers part of the project.
lalla essaydi
From Harem Revisited, by Lalla Essaydi.

Critics decry a new sort of Orientalism in the final images, which are breathtakingly lush, even editorial. But Essaydi sees the efforts of Gérôme and his colleagues as a response to the authentic beauty of North Africa. She says she hopes to perform a delicate balance in their wake: capturing this beauty without exploiting it. "Everything is planned carefully," she says, to the question of how visual impact determines her choices. "I won’t include anything beautiful for mere aesthetic."

Monday, February 16, 2015

Books For Bigots...

Publishers can sometimes package books for bigots. - Adam Talib

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Last Tattooed Women of Kobane...

Last fall, photographer Jodi Hilton visited Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, across the border from Kobane, Syria. There, she encountered women who displayed the last of a fading art form—deq facial tattoos. I interviewed her about her experience photographing the women who bear these disappearing symbols.

Picture of Syrian refugee in Turkey with facial tattoos called deq
Amina Saleh, 60, from Kobane, at a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey. A mother of six, she got her face tattooed when she was about ten years old.

COBURN DUKEHART: Where did you encounter these women and what made you want to photograph them?
JODI HILTON: I had been working in a Turkish border town across from Kobane, photographing U.S. airstrikes, border villages, and fighters’ funerals, when I got the idea to make this portrait series. I made most of the photographs in the refugee camps in Suruc, but I also made few in a camp in Iraqi Kurdistan—another place where Kobane refugees were finding shelter.
I have long been fascinated with the regional facial tattoos, called deq. I had seen them in Turkey amongst both Arabs and Kurds, especially in the province of Urfa, but it wasn’t until the conflict in Kobane that I realized the tradition naturally extended across the border to Syria. On both sides of the border people are connected by language, tribe, and ethnic identity, so it makes sense that they also share other cultural attributes.
I was curious about particular aspects of the deq tradition, like, Why they are almost exclusively found on women above the age of 60? Why and when did people stop the practice? Also, I wanted to understand the lines and shapes and why they are commonly placed between the lips and chin. To my eyes, the tattoos resembled a sort of unkept beard, but in the past they were considered the height of beauty.

Picture of Syrian refugee in Turkey with facial tattoos called deq
Amina Abdel Majid Suleyman, about 70, from Kobane, at Rojava refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey. She is the mother of seven children and cares for two grandchildren whose mother died. “I was tattooed as a baby, probably when I was about six months old,” she says.

COBURN: Can you tell me a bit about the history of these tattoos?
JODI: It’s difficult to find historical facts about the Kurdish deq tradition. We can surmise, however, that the tattoos are not exclusive to Kurds or this specific region but are spread throughout swaths of the Islamic world.
Many women reported being tattooed by a “nomad” or a “gypsy woman,” and these traveling tattoo artists may well have dispersed the tradition. But some of the designs are unique, possibly referring to pre-Islamic religions that are, in some way, still in the hearts of some Kurdish people.
The tattoos are made from soot and breast milk and sometimes gallbladder liquid from a sheep or goat. The design is drawn on the skin and then a series of small punctures are made with a sewing needle. Then the mixture is spread over the design, which scabs over and leaves the tattoo. Most are done between the ages of eight and twelve. One woman even tattooed her own breasts, encircling the nipples with a thin round line.

Picture of Syrian refugees with facial tattoos called deq
Badiya Jelal Aqil, 33, and her daughter, Fatma Tamra, 12. “My daughter liked my tattoo and asked for the same,” said Aqil, who fled the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane with her husband and five children to Arbet Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. She says her grandmother made her tattoos, which are three simple dots on her face and three on her left hand. Fatma has just one dot between her eyes.

COBURN: What is the symbolism behind the tattoos?
JODI: Common symbols include inverted Vs; Earth symbols like the sun, moon, and stars; dots and vines, especially on the hands; and, occasionally, animal designs.
An ethnomusicologist named Fethi Karkecili helped me interpret the symbols. Plant symbols, he believes, refer to wishes for fertility, productivity, and strength. The V symbols are tribal identifiers, the size of the symbol corresponding with the size of the family group. One woman I met had twin gazelles on her chin, probably in reference to the animal’s beauty and grace.
An often heard reason why tattoos are mainly drawn from lip to chin is so sweetness can exit the woman’s mouth when she speaks. A tattoo between the eyes offers protection against nazar, the evil eye. A moon next to the side of the eye may mean that the woman or her family converted from Yazidism to Islam but still holds some of the religious traditions.
Some women also shared tattoos in “secret places,” like on the ankle, neck, and even breasts. Mostly the women say that they were made for beautification, but some experts say that truly beautiful women sometimes had heavy tattoos made in order to hide their beauty, to protect them from the evil eye.

Picture of Syrian refugee in Turkey with facial tattoos called deq
Zubeyda Ali, 60, who fled Kobane with her whole family, including ten married children and 25 grandchildren, was tattooed at the age of 13. She has a large tattoo on her left hand and some small inverted-V tattoos on her chin. Her husband, Nuh Shahin, says, “All the men loved girls with tattoos.” They married when she was 13 and he was 20.

COBURN: Did you get the sense that these women were proud of their tattoos? Ashamed?
JODI: Some of the women I photographed were ashamed of their tattoos. They realized later in life that they are haram according to Islam, or they were made to feel old-fashioned by others. But most of the women were happy to speak about their tattoos—a subject other than the war, the dreary life of being a refugee, the pain of having deaths in their families and losing their homes.
One of the women happily shared stories of her husband’s fascination with her tattoos, recounting how he would kiss her tattooed places, including her neck and inner arm. In another case, a woman clearly enjoyed hearing her husband recall how at first glance, he fell in love with his future wife. He found her and her tattoos to be beautiful. Fifty years later, as they share a cramped tent in a refugee camp, he still does.

Picture of Syrian refugee in Turkey with facial tattoos called deq
Adule Ali, about 80, from Kobane. “When I was young, a gypsy woman made my tattoos,” said Adule. As a young bride, her husband was apparently so taken by her beauty that upon seeing her, he accidentally cut his finger off with the scythe he had been using to cut wheat.

COBURN: Is this a dying art form? Are the younger women of this culture continuing the tradition?
JODI: The deq tradition stopped being performed, for the most part, about 50 years ago.
If and when we find women under 50 with deq, the designs are minimalistic—a simple dot on the cheek, between the eyes, or on the chin. Almost all of the women I interviewed were the daughters of tattooed women, but almost none of their daughters carried on the tradition. When I asked why, they mostly told me that it wasn’t “modern” or was “old-fashioned.”
What I’ve come to believe is that globalization, combined with the mainstreaming of Islamic religious beliefs, made women believe that according to Islam, altering the body in such ways is haram.

Picture of Syrian refugee in Turkey with facial tattoos called deq
Adule Imam Sheik Muhamad, 60, from Kobane, with two of her grandchildren. “I didn’t want the tattoos,” she says, “because it was very painful, but when I saw the results, I liked it. In our time, it was said to be beautiful, but not anymore.”

COBURN: What are you hoping that viewers will take away from your photographs?
JODI: I wanted to make these photographs as a historical document, to memorialize the women and their tattoos so that when they are gone we can still remember them. I also wanted to bring attention to something unique about the culture of the people from Kobane, aside from their status as refugees.
Jodi Hilton is an American photojournalist who has been working in Turkey and the Balkans since 2010. She was previously based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and a contributor to the Italian agency NurPhoto. Her work has been published internationally in newspapers and magazines, including in National Geographic (Italy) and National Geographic Traveler. See more of her work at, read her blog, and follow her onInstagram.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Celebrating Sadeh...

Thousands of Zoroastrians across ‪#‎Iran‬ gathered earlier this week to celebrate the mid-winter festival of Sadeh, which marks 50 days and 50 nights since the winter solstice, and 50 days and 50 nights until the Nowruz festival that marks the beginning of spring.

In Tehran, Kerman, and other cities, thousands of worshipers and passerby gathered to celebrate the festival with bonfires, dancing and parades. For Zoroastrians, fire and water are both associated with ritual purity, and religious festivities are linked to the changing of the seasons. Many Iranian festivals widely celebrated in the country today, including Nowruz and Yalda, are originally Zoroastrian, and the Persian calendar is also based on the seasons as well.

Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that was the state faith of a number of pre-Islamic Persian imperial dynasties. Today there are hundreds of thousands of Zoroastrian spread across the world, primarily in Iran, India, Central Asia, the UK, and the US.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Queens of Africa...

There's a new Barbie in town. She's a queen, she's black, she wears traditional African costumes — and she's not actually a Barbie.

Created by a Nigerian man, Taofick Okoya, seven years ago after he couldn't find a black doll for his niece, the Queens of Africa have since beaten Barbie to become one of the best-selling toys in Africa's most populous country.

The 43-year-old Okoya sells between 6,000 and 9,000 'Queens of Africa' and 'Naijia Princesses' a month in Nigeria, and claims to have up to 15 per cent of the country's toy market.
The dolls, which sell for equivalent to £4.50, resemble Barbie dolls insomuch as they are thin - earlier big bodied editions weren't as popular - but their African outfits and darker skin stands them apart.

Nigerian children see themselves in these increasingly popular dolls, with one customer - five-year-old Ifunanya Odiah - proudly proclaiming at a Lagos shopping mall: "I like it. It's black, like me."

Earlier this month, Okoya told ELLE: "I spent about two years campaigning on the importance and benefits of dolls in the African likeness.

"During that process, I realized greater social issues such as low self esteem, which led to the passion to make a change in the coming generation. It's been a tough journey but one I have enjoyed."

American manufacturer Mattel, which does sell black Barbies, is not a large presence in the region and told Reuters it has no any plans for expansion.

Mattel yesterday announced global Barbie sales fell by 12 per cent last quarter.

The success of the Queens of Africa is another example of the emergence of a middle class in Nigeria, which along with Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey is thought to be one of the world's awakening economic giants.

Toy sales in emerging markets such as Nigeria are growing at a rate of 13 per cent, as opposed to just 1 per cent in the developed world, suggesting that Okoya's Queens, Princesses and their to-be successors may have a successful stint on the shelf.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Wakhi Women Of The Hunza...

Gathered Greens

A group of Wakhi women return from a daily excursion across Pakistan’s Hunza riverbed to gather fodder and wood for their cooking fires. Photographer Matthieu Paley has been traveling the world in search of our ancestral ties to the food we eat.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley, National Geographic