Posts Tagged ‘religion’

The sands and the sacred texts

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

It’s deeply saddening to discover that in Mali, militants seem to have systematically destroyed much of West Africa’s Islamic heritage by ransacking and torching the libraries that hold priceless Korans and Hadiths.

Some years ago I made a story in nearby Mauritania about the wind destroying the desert cities of Chinguetti and Oudane, both significant repositories of similar ancient manuscripts. I wrote:

“Once upon a time, the Wind grew jealous of the prosperous cities and resolved to bury them beneath the sands so that the only traces were old men and dusty books. So it was that the wind crashed against the purple stone mass of the Adrar, the mountain range that crosses Mauritania in West Africa. It blew until the rocks were carved into sculptures of fearful complexity. It blew until the dunes advanced and Chinguetti and Ouadane, two once mighty cities of scholars and traders of the Sahara, began to choke under the ocean of sand. Today they are almost gone…”


Mauritania - Chinguetti - A librarian reads a traditional Koran outside the Chinguetti Mosque

Mauritania – Chinguetti – A librarian reads an ancient Koran outside the Chinguetti Mosque


Mauritania - Chinguetti -

Mauritania – Chinguetti – Ancient books, Korans and lahs inside a traditional library


Mauritania - Chinguetti - A man hold a wooden lah covered in Koranic inscriptions

Mauritania – Chinguetti – A man hold a wooden lah covered in Koranic inscriptions


Mauritania - Chinguetti - A pile of priceless manuscripts in a desert library

Mauritania – Chinguetti – A pile of priceless manuscripts in a desert library


Mauritania - Chinguetti - A priceless Koran

Mauritania – Chinguetti – A priceless Koran



Imran Khan… again

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

It seems that Imran Khan, who I’ve photographed a couple of times on assignment (and previously written about) is finally making a breakthrough in the murky and dangerous world of Pakistani politics with a large rally on Christmas Day. I was delighted therefore to see that his new book, Pakistan, a personal history includes a couple of my images of him.

Here’s one they unfortunately missed…



Pakistan - Lahore - Imran Khan the former Pakistan International Cricket player at prayer in a mosque in Lahore, Pakistan


Friday, September 23rd, 2011

According to Hindu tradition, widows are a curse. Many are dumped by their families in a dusty north Indian town called Vrindavan, supposedly the birthplace of Khrishna. Here the widows sing and chant for long periods of the day in ashrams where they are paid small amounts of money – the only employment open to them.

India - Vrindavan - Hari Das, 60. A widow abandoned by her family she lives in a small hut along with 40 others women in a slum on the outskirts of Vrindavan. Ostracized by society, thousands of India's widows flock to, or are forcibly dumped in the holy city of Vrindavan waiting to die and receive a meagre pittance of food and money by chanting in ashrams


India - Vrindavan - Widows chant in an ashram for a meagre allowance of money


India - Vrindavan - A Widow chants in an ashram for a meagre allowance of money

Silkwinds Magazine

Friday, September 16th, 2011

A nice spread in this month’s Silkwinds Magazine (in flight magazine for SilkAir)with my story on the Idol Makers story I shot last year.



Charlotte Joko Beck

Monday, June 27th, 2011

I was saddened to read of the passing of Charlotte Joko Beck recently. While I have my own thoughts about some aspects of American Zen, Beck’s clear-headed actions stood out and could serve well as a light to another community that I am part of. The photographic one.

“I meet all sorts of people who’ve had all sorts of experiences and they’re still confused and not doing very well in their life. Experiences are not enough. My students learn that if they have so-called experiences, I really don’t care much about hearing about them. I just tell them, ‘Yeah, that’s O.K. Don’t hold onto it. And how are you getting along with your mother?’… ‘Learning how to deal with one’s personal, egotistic self. That’s the work. Very, very difficult.’” Joko Beck.

Some people will know of my own recent near misses and so her last words (according to the Twitter feed of one of Beck’s colleagues) have an extraordinary (and unlike my own…) courageous resonance.

”This too is wonder.”

Japan - Kyoto - A detail of a wooden door at the Ginkakuji temple, Kyoto, Japan

M F Husain

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

It’s with great sadness that I heard this morning that the rather wonderful Indian artist MF Husain passed away during the night. I wrote about him last year as he’d taken Qatari citizenship but continued to keep a house in London. Doubtless those shrill self-appointed, hateful voices from the Hindu religious right will be celebrating his demise – and how brave they were from keeping a old man from dying in his own country. I remember him as a courteous and thoughtful subject, delightfully playful during the evening I spent with him in apartment in Mumbai a decade ago. A charming man and an astonishing talent.


India - Mumbai - MF Husain, India's greatest modernist painter at his studio in Bombay. Before him is a picture of his muse Maduri Dixit, a film actress


A small step

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

It seems that the Pope has signaled that condom use might be justified to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS. A brave, welcome and clearly significant decision that will certainly save thousands of lives.

Rwanda - Kibileze - Emmanuel Singizumakiza, a health educator shows a boy how to use a condom

The women and the mountain

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

In an extraordinary and wonderful turn of events, I have just heard that India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has blocked Vedanta Resources’ controversial plan to mine bauxite on the sacred hills of the Dongria Kondh tribe.

Vedanta Resources, a UK-registered ftse -100 company wanted to mine The Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa which are sacred to  Dongria Kondhs, a protected tribal group of ‘original’ Aboriginal peoples.

According to Survival International, Mr Ramesh said Vedanta has shown a ’shocking’ and ‘blatant disregard for the rights of the tribal groups’. The Minister has also questioned the legality of the massive refinery Vedanta has already built below the hills.

I wrote about this back in May 2009 (India – Vedanta’s shame) and also for Tehelka in late 2007 (Knocked Out by Bauxite).

Here are some images from the story.

India - Orissa - Dabu Limajhi, a Dongria Kondh tribal woman in Kankasarpa village, shares a joke with friends in her house

India - Orissa - Dabu Limajhi, a Dongria Kondh tribal woman in Kankasarpa village

India - Orissa - A Dongria Kondh woman carries a pot of water on her head in front of the Vedanta plant, Lanjigargh

India - Orissa - sunset over the Niyamgiri hills. The hills are sacred to the Dongria Kondh and are worshipped as a deity

Iraq Inc. or how a withdrawl is really not…

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Today’s newspapers are full of jubilant American troops leaving Iraq after completing their mission to bring peace, democracy and their ‘way of life’ to the uncivilised. A tremendous success. The ‘surge’ worked and all those Allied soldiers didn’t die in vain.

Well, not true. The war, born of a lie, born of greed and evil has been a disaster for America and for the world. There is also no end to the violence: more civilians died last month in Iraq than in Afghanistan. There is no political settlement and the Iraqi Resistance is as strong as it ever was. The Occupation hasn’t ended, it’s just been privatised. Apparently there around 10000 armed mercenaries in the country working in the State Department’s interests and the American’s want this increased (Blackwater helpfully calls this ‘the coming surge’). Of course the advantages of having cheap mercenary armies made up of contractors (notably from the Developing World) are clear: cost and (non) accountability. In any case, someone has to patrol the oil fields under (long, probably illegal) contract to the Americans and their friends joyfully raping Iraq’s natural resources.

Still, we haven’t really seen this. What we have seen is the war as viewed from the back of American and (sometimes) British armoured cars. It’s rare to see or hear Iraqi voices despite the war lasting seven years and we’ve generally had to endure the war through embedding and spin. The few cracks in the information blackout have been enlightening but as rare and as elusive as peace itself.

Iraq - Baghdad - Two women wearing chador gossip and laugh on the street

Iraq- Basra - Boys climb what is know locally as the tree of Adam at Al Qurnah near Basra. The Holy Tree, according to the legend marked the Garden of Eden, at the convergence of the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers

Iraq- Baghdad - A man in the Oum Kalsoum cafe

Iraq - Babylon - The restored walls of the Temple complex. Babylon, an ancient city when mention in the Bible is dated at around the 24th Century BC. In 1985, Saddam Hussein started rebuilding the city on top of the old ruins (because of this, artifacts and other finds may well be buried under the city), investing in both restoration and new construction. To the dismay of archaeologists, he inscribed his name on many of the bricks in imitation of Nebuchadnezzar. One frequent inscription reads: "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq".

Iraq - Mosul - A Yezidi priest lights a lamp in a religious service at a Yezidi temple. The Yazidis believe in God as creator of the world, which he placed under the care of seven angels the chief of whom is Melek Taus - the Peacock Angel. Speculation that worship of Melek Taus was worship of Satan (who fell) have resulted in Yezidi's being persecuted as 'devil worshippers' throughout their history and persecuted.

Iraq - Mosul - An old Yezidi woman

Iraq - Ur- A man walks past the ziggurat at Ur, supoosedly the city of the prophet Abraham's birth. Ur was a principal city of ancient Mesopotamia. The Ziggurat was dedicated to the moon and was built approximately in the 21st century BC by king Ur-Namma. In Sumerian times it was called Etemennigur.

Iraq - Basra - A shepherd boy and his flock

Iraq- Basra - A shepherd boy and his flock

Iraq - Samarra - A man climbs the minaret of the Al-Mutawakkil mosque. The first mosque, built in 836, has now disappeared; it was replaced in 849-852 by a new mosque built on a grand scale, which for a long time was the largest mosque of the Islamic world. It continued to be used until the end of the 11th century.

Iraq - Basra - A boat on the River Euphrates at sunset

Shadow People

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

A taste of a new project that I started to work on this year about the mental health crisis in Delhi is showcased by my agency Panos here.

The poor have fallen out of the narrative of modern India. Delhi, the nation’s capital, has been transformed into a vibrant, wealthy metropolis. But where extremes of wealth tread, illness and despair follow, and Delhi is today in the grip of a mental health crisis.

An estimated 20 million Indians suffer from serious mental disorders, many of them hidden from public view by their families. Delhi is a city of migrants and every day thousands more arrive to try to escape the poverty of the village. Many will remain homeless, divorced from the traditional family structure and culture. Delhi’s army of homeless is conservatively estimated to number around 100,000 people. Mental illness in this group is treated either by violence from the rest of the community or traditional ‘quack’ or faith healers. Delhi has had a traumatic history. The city was destroyed by the British in 1857, by Partition nearly a century later and riven by anti-Sikh violence in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s murder. It seems to me that Delhi has lost a great deal of its culture and sense of itself; a dangerous thing to lose. A psychiatrist might contend that by its rampant consumerism it is trying to ‘feed itself’ an identity.

Nimesh Desai, head of psychiatry at the New Delhi-based Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, estimates that India has fewer than 4,000 psychiatrists, and even fewer general mental health professionals. ‘The lack of psychiatrists is bad and the shortage of psychologists, social workers and councellors is even more alarming,’ Desai told me. ‘It meets about five to seven percent of the projected need.’ Desai has however attempted a solution. After eight years of intense lobbying, his team have started to conduct weekly open air surgeries for the mentally ill homeless in Old Delhi. He is accompanied by a High Court judge who assesses each patient to decide whether or not Desai can inject them with anti-psychotic drugs. On rare occasions he sections them to his mental hospital in the east of the city.

India - Delhi - A homeless mentally ill man picks up a rock to throw at passing traffic

India - Delhi - A mentally ill man kisses his wife who visits him in the secure ward

India - New Delhi - A Pir, exorcises a spirit from a mentally troubled who believes herself possessed at a dargah (shrine) in South Delhi