The bridge

Maurice de Flaminck, The bridge (detail, s.d., 1890s). From the great Impressionist exhibition of Potsdam

We are having lunch in Neukölln, in a Turkish kebab house, with the Berlin sightseeing group. Twenty people are too many for a small canteen, we must sit to the tables of others. A meek little man is dining with his son, he opens slowly, he speaks good English. They came from Aleppo, along a life-threatening way, across many borders. There is no wife and mother, it is not known where she was left, we do not dare to ask. The little boy is going to go to school, to refugee school, he already knows a few words in German, he proudly plays with the color pencils received in advance. And then the inevitable: “And where are you from?” It is hard to utter, we do not know which memories they bring with them from one of the many borders. “From Hungary.” The father translates it to his little son. The boy’s face brightens up, he lifts his color pencil: “Hungary is friend!” Blessed be the name of the nameless one who helped him to think of us like this.

Persian disco


I know these songs. They play in the taxi, as soon as you leave for the city from Khomenei Airport, they rumble in the kebab shop and in the bazaar, they stiffen your mind during the all-day bus route across the desert. But I have never seen people publicly dancing to them, especially not with a glass of whisky in the hand, and particularly not in the company of girls with uncovered hair and in skirts ending at thigh. Any of these subplots individually would cry for a few years of prison in Iran. But not in Berlin, in Neukölln’s Werkstatt der Kulturen, in whose cellar a Noruz celebration, a spring New Year’s disco is held tonight. The songs are the characteristic pieces of Iranian rollicking music, lamenting in Persian about the tortures of love and the inevitability of becoming adults, singing in Arabic the Egyptian pop, which is getting increasingly fashionable in Iran, or changing for Iranian-Azerbaijani Torki or Kurdish folk songs for the sake of the Iranian ethnic minorities present in the room. The audience still reacts as they had done at home, the boys dance only with boys and the girls with girls, but at least no longer in separate rooms, but in a common space, laughing embarrassed at the unusual situation. The children stroll about along the edge of the stage, they already grow into the situation, imitating the adults, until around midnight they are taken to sleep.

Habibi (Sweetheart), with Arabic text

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And the bonus: Üsküdara, the Balkan migrating melody, about which we have already written, this night in an Iranian presentaion

River-watch


The Wall had fallen twenty-eight years ago, just as many as it had lived. The wounds slowly scab over. Who remembers any more that in the Potsdamer Platz there was a forest, from where thousands of crows took off at dawn, that behind the Märkisches Museum the street ended in a trabant leaned against the wall? Only the seamless row of remarkably new houses reveals the lack of a past, the scar of the basalt cube line running in the middle of the asphalt sets one more layer on this city full of scars. And yet, even after twenty-eight years, a crack in the space-time opens in the most unexpected places, the wall romanticism rises again in the very middle of the city. A few hundred meters from Checkpoint Charlie, where you now have to relive in the freak show of a Persian artist what it felt like to peep over the wall, along the Stallschreiberstraße, where Martin Luther King personally hurried to express a distressing opinion about the East German border guards who opened fire on that morning on a DDR-Flüchtling, the coppice wood, which has thriven for twenty-eight years, has disappeared overnight. In the middle of the land, moled by building machinery, a guard with long white hair is watching the cut-out woods, at the yowl of his dog he turns back, he beckons to the camera. The new house row of the Alte Jakobsstraße, and the TV tower of the Alexanderplatz shines through the clearance. The cast stone blocks running on the edge of the ground will not indicate for long the former line of the wall. Time has swallowed another piece from the shelf islands of recent history.

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Carnival in Mamoiada


The normative descriptions of folk customs, such as we find in ethnographic encyclopaedia, or in the representative publication of the Museum of Mediterranean Masques of Mamoiada about the local Carnival, lift the custom into a timeless sphere, adjust it to the rhythm of the eternal return. What was yesterday will be tomorrow as well, and the parade of the mamuthones and issohadores of Mamoiada appears before us from the obscurity of five thousand years as we would have experienced it by entering the stream of time at any of the carnivals in the past five thousand years.

The normative description highlights the actions repeated year after year, which are considered the essential elements of the custom, and the carriers of collective identity. Exactly because of this, it does not account for such casual and improvised actions of the realization of the custom, as, for example

• that the mamuthones and issohadores, while dancing through the village, en-route stop at every bar, where they dance around the room, and they get free drink in return;

• the villagers take part in the feast in a wide variety of carnival costumes, which, from a historical and symbolic point of view, are absolutely incompatible with the millenary tradition of the mamuthones, but this absolutely does not bother anyone;

• the participants of the parade again and again quit their ritual role, to interact with the relatives and friends, thereby strengthening social ties, and they take pictures with their mobile phones of the other millenary masquerade, the kurents invited from Slovenia to amuse the village, just as these latter take photos of them, and all the onlookers of all of them;

• and that this multi-threaded series of events, which waves on, halts and then restarts during many hours in several sites, unique and never repeatable, and only to be experienced here and in person, this is the very carnival of Mamoiada.

On the Milan flight a young Italian couple is watching me organizing the photos. “Where is this?” they ask. “In Mamoiada, Sardinia”, I reply. “Next year we will go there, too”, they decide.

Mamuthones in the bar. Video by Tibor Nagy


Maria Pittau: Su Beranu (Spring). From the album Raighinas (2004)

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New blood. Video by Ildikó Fabricius


Growth-ring

Gavoi (Sardinia), 15th-c. parish church, Easter 2016

Gavoi, Carnival 2017

Carnival in Sardinia

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“If you want to see a carnival, as there is no other in all the earth, go to Mamoiada, where it begins on the day of St. Anthony, and you will see the herd in wooden masks, the mute and subdued herd, the defeated elders and winning young people, the sad carnival, the carnival of ashes, our everyday history, a joy seasoned with bile and vinegar, the bitter honey.”


Salvatore Cambosu: Miele amaro (Bitter honey)
Just a few days, and Lent sets in. In the last days, however, from Shrove Sunday to Shrove Tuesday, the Carnival reaches its summit. It is celebrated in an especially archaic way in the villages of Sardinia. First and foremost in the secluded mountain region of Barbagia, which is culturally a kind of island in the island. And there, primarily in the village of Mamoiada.

Mamoiada is one of the oldest settlements in Sardinia. Next to it, in the double cave Sa Oche e Su Ventu was excavated one of the island’s oldest – twenty thousand years old – human habitation, and the huge rock-cut tombs under the village have been in use since the 6th millennium BC. In the Middle Ages, the remote and inaccessible mountain region could not be really achieved by the Catholic Church: in contrast to the rest of Sardinia, no monastic community has settled next to the village, and its only church was the small shepherd church of St. Cosmas and Damian, far from the settlement. This may also explain the survival of those very ancient carnival and spring-greeting fertility rites, which thousands of years ago were common throughout the Mediterranean, but today their remains are to be found mainly in the mountain villages of the Balkans.


The Carnival of Mamoiada begins on the night of 16 January, the feast of St. Anthony, when fires are lit and masquerade processions organized across the whole Mediterranean. The two types of the Mamoiada processions are the mamuthones and the issohadores. The former, who symbolize some kind of ancient animal or natural force, wear black sheep skin dress, black wooden mask and black cloth, and carry on their back twenty to thirty kilos of copper bells – “sa carriga” – with bone tongues, which accompany with a ghostly roar their slow, rhythmic procession. The latter follow them in red-white Renaissance – or as they say here, “Turkish” – dress, mostly in white masks, with lasso in the hand, with which they try to pull the viewers into the march. The procession ends at the bonfire lit on the main square of the town, where all the participants and spectators are offered a traditional Sardinian plate of beans with bacon, and the whole village is united in a Sardinian round dance – ballu tundu – around the fire.

Today we travel to the Carnival. Now we can illustrate this short report only with the pictures of the booklet of the Mask Museum of Mamoiada. On the evening of Shrove Tuesday we can hopefully publish our own photos on the feast.



Tenores di Bitti: Ballate a ballu tundu (Round dance). From the album Ammentos (1996)

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Start point


It is well known that all roads lead to Rome. So lately I have been much more interested in how many places you can get to from Rome. Can you determine, using classic triangulation, in what small Polish town this photo was taken, between 1935 and 1938, by Roman Vishniac? Caution: Poland has since shifted a few hundred kilometers to the west, and the official names of many places changed.


Yes, you have guessed well. The signpost stood in today’s Belorussian town of Слоним, at a time when, between the two world wars, it belonged to Poland as Słonim. Vishniac published the photo with the title “From Słonim the roads lead to everywhere in the world”. The version found in the Vishniac Archive shows that the signpost stood behind the great synagogue, built in 1642, lending a special connotation to the title. Słonim, established at the confluence of the navigable Shchara and Issa rivers, has been an important trading town since the Middle Ages, with a Jewish quarter known since 1388, and with a pre-war Jewish population of nearly 20 thousand. Its beautiful great synagogue was even spared the devastation of the war. Hence comes the Słonim Hasidic Dynasty in Israel, and the founder of the British Marks & Spencer warehouse chain. Vishniac visited the town between 1935 and 1938, during his photographic survey of the Eastern European Jewish settlements. Let us include here the other photos he took in Słonim, too, as well as two closing pictures on the weekly market and the firemen of Słonim. The latter is a part of a postcard series of ethnographic interest, which was published on the town, and primarily on its exotic-looking Jews in 1917, during the German military occupation. The other pieces of the series can be seen on Pinterest’s Słonim page and in Eliat Gordin Levitan’s collection of old Słonim photos, and a superb stand-alone piece here.

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Dissolving: The saddle


What kind of saddle is this on the fence, in the Lisu-Tibetan village of Cizhong/Cedro? If you asked me on the spot, I certainly would have guessed horse or mule.


But ever since I saw this photo, taken by Michael Yamashita not far from here, and published in his photo album on the tea-horse-road Shangri-La. Par la route du thé et des chevaux (2012), I cannot look at it without seeing, instead of the curved spine of the tile-roofed fence, the backbone of the yak.


Beneath the Jade Dragon


Lumu’s Tibetan House is a source of knowledge for the initiated in Lijiang. Unlike with the Chinese, most of whom do not even know what’s in their own neighborhood, here you can get up to date information about accommodations in the surrounding towns, highly recommended, but not available on the Internet, guest houses and restaurants operated by Tibetans, detailed hand-drawn maps of the paths of the 2,500-meter-deep Tiger Leap Gorge, and a photocopied bicycle map of the old town of Lijiang, which indicates the places where bikes can be rented. This is important knowledge, because the rental business is located at the edge of the large old town, beneath a modern block of flats, opposite the statue of Mao, where only hardcore leftists of the sixties would pilgrimage otherwise. The bike rental is 30 yuan, or 4 euros, for a day, with a 250 yuan or 36 euros deposit. Our goal is the string of little towns of the Naxi ethnic group to the north of Lijiang, beneath the Yulong Mountain: Shuhe, Baisha, Yuhu.



The Yulong Mountain, as befits its name, hovers above the plain like an enormous dragon carved with jagged contours out of a single piece of jade. I stop to take a photo. So that the electrical line that goes alongside the road does not cut the dragon at the waist, I walk a bit ahead into the abandoned rice field, where a thorny weed rips a large hole on my pants. No matter, Baisha is the center of traditional Naxi embroidery, so I hope to find a master who can repair it with a sewing machine.


An old paved street turns off the main road towards the center of the town. The old houses along it are being beautifully restored, the new ones are being provided with old-style porches and gates, in the spirit of the new times. In front of a grocery store, an old woman is washing vegetables in the stream. “Where can I find someone in the village, who could sew my pants?” “We’ll do it for you!”, she replies. She examines them, then she brings out a thread of matching color, threaded in a needle. She calls out the seller from the store. She looks at my legs, to find the best place to start the work, so I helpfully take off my pants. She turns away, with an embarrassed scream and giggles. While she is sewing in front of the shop, I am talking to the old man sitting at the old mahjong table: the grocery store is also a kind of a daycare home for elderly people. The pants are soon done, its value as handmade Naxi embroidery has increased significantly. “How much does the work cost?” I ask. “Nothing”, she says, surprised, and does not accept money even when I insist many times.

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“Where is the old town?” I ask. “That way”, she points further on the paved street, “but it’s very small”, and she shows with the hand, how small. The old town is in fact small, but very cozy. The town gate immediately opens onto the main square, flanked by good eateries. In the shade of a big tree, old greengrocer women and men gather for a conversation dressed in traditional Naxi attire. We lock our bikes to the town gate, sit down in the open door of one of the canteens, order beer, we get acquainted with the drama taking place on the stage of the main square and its actors.

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Three streets begin at the southern city gate, each one has its own profile. Along the one going straight ahead to the north, they sell embroidered and batik clothes in the old courtyards, both old and new, equally beautiful. Here you can also consult Doctor He Shixiu, the eighty-year-old miracle doctor, a local celebrity, to whom they come from far and wide for healing. In front of his house, a collection of newspaper clippings evidence his fame. The street going east, toward the mountains, is flanked by peasant houses, it heads out to the rice fields. The plum trees are already blossoming in the fields, though it’s only February, and in the background, like the Fuji, floats Mount Yulong. The oriental postcard comes home.


The street leading west, to the medieval Dabaoji Temple, is the main street of the town. It is flanked by small antique shops, tea houses, convenience stores. In one of them, a mahjong battle rages on, to the death, just as dominoes are played in Georgia. Some ten men are competing with a woman, the shopkeeper. The clicks of mahjong tiles emphatically striking the table, and the guttural sounds of short commentaries. They are aware of our presence, but they do not look up, they do not break away from the game.

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In the middle of the street, an open pavilion. Old musicians are giving a concert on a weekday afternoon. Donations are welcome, but according to the tatsepao put out in front of the pavilion, their true purpose is the revival of the traditional Naxi music. This music, which has a thousand-year-old tradition, flourished before the Cultural Revolution, with several ensembles playing in every town. Its oldest version was called precisely “Baisha music” (白沙细乐, Báishā xìyuè), because it took shape and was preserved here, in the capital of the former Naxi kingdom, independent until 1271. Mao, however, banned traditional music across the country, and had the instruments broken. Most of the old musicians educated in the tradition have since died, and with them also a part of the repertoire. The survivors now try to pass on their knowledge, while they still can.


Naxi musicians, Baisha. Record by Lloyd Dunn, February 2017

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