Mellah Essaouira

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A mellah  is a walled Jewish quarter of a city in Morocco,  analogous to the European ghetto.  Jewish population were confined to mellahs in Morocco beginning from the 15th century and especially since the early 19th century. It first was seen as a privilege and a protection against the Arabs’ attacks in the region, but with the growing of the population, it then became a poor and miserable place.

In cities, a mellah was surrounded by a wall with a fortified gateway. Usually, the Jewish quarter was situated near the royal palace or the residence of the governor, in order to protect its inhabitants from recurring riots due to its inhabitants playing a vital role in the local economy. In contrast, rural mellahs were separate villages inhabited solely by the Jews.

The mellah is now one of the poorest neighborhoods in Essaouira, located within the walls in the northern part of the medina.  Jews came to Essaouira for the wealth of the port and the trade opportunities it offered,  taking advantage of attractive incentives to handle the trade with Europe by Mohammed 111 in the 18th century.  Jews once comprised 40% of the population, and the mellah contains many old synagogues.  The city flourished until the caravan trade died, supplanted by direct European trade with sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Spanish Civil War : Republican Officer Near Belchite

Alan Warren-1I would like to suggest that a new photograph of a resting Republican officer taken by Gerda Toro has been discovered in a suitcase of negatives until recently lost somewhere remotely.  Sadly,  the truth is this is a photograph taken on the International Brigades Archaeological Project I attended in August 2015 and portrays Alan Warren as the group rested in shade at a site near Belchite,  Aragon.

Alan, who offers expert Spanish Civil War tours of the battlefield sites of Catalonia, Aragon and Spain in general, joined us for several days,  dressing in costume for some of it.  His website is here .

The mention above to a lost suitcase is a direct reference to photographs indeed being found in a suitcase in Mexico.  In December 2007, three boxes filled with rolls of film, containing 4,500 35mm negatives of the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim (David Seymour) —which had been considered lost since 1939 —arrived at the International Center of Photography. These three photographers, who lived in Paris, worked in Spain, and published internationally, laid the foundation for modern war photography. Their work has long been considered some of the most innovative and passionate coverage of the Spanish Civil War.

An exhibition of this work is currently running in the Central European University, Budapest ( Robert Capa was Hungarian born ) and a film , directed and written by Trish Ziff, is also available.

 

Manikarnika Cremation Ghat

The traditional Hindu practice of cremating bodies assumes a greater level of finality and reverence in Varanasi than perhaps anywhere else in India.  Recognised as the ‘city of Shiva’  the whole city is spiritually considered a ‘cremation area’ though in practice pyres are only lit in the smaller Harish Chandra ghat and the much larger Manikarnika ghat.  Over 400 cremations per day can occur in these 2 areas.

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For a person of Hindu faith,  there are many spiritual advantages in dying and being cremated in Varanasi,  and the city attracts enormous numbers of people every year wishing to die within its boundaries and for their ashes be scattered within the river Ganges.  These acts ensure that the dead attain moksha and are free from the almost endless cycle of death and rebirth.   Also the city area is considered a ‘tirtha’,  that is an area where the boundaries between earth and heaven are diffused and opportunities for spiritual experiences and regular commune with deities are greatly enhanced.

Manikarnika Cremation Ghat is a multi-tiered area of vast wood stores,  cremation shops,  temples,  shaving areas and chai shops with old steps which lead down through several levels to the banks of the Ganga.  There is always a bustling level of activity on these steps as new bodies wrapped in colourful shrouds are delivered for cremation,  relatives huddle waiting for proceedings to start and men dressed in the mourning colours of white undertake their specific rituals.  Cows,  goats and dogs come and go throughout these scenes like in the most surreal Bunuel movie,  feeding off the colourful flowers discarded from the body and any other morsels they can secure.  Billowing smoke and flames complete a landscape reminiscent of that from a warzone.

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Although foreign tourists are welcome to watch the cremations,  and guides and ghat priests are always on hand to provide an explanation as to the rites and rituals of the proceedings,  taking of photographs is strictly forbidden and this is a convention enforced with a dogged determination.  Non-Hindu people with cameras are routinely advised that ‘no photography is allowed’.  The guides and ghat priests though are always partial to ‘donations’  and a photograph or two to accompany an explanation can often be negotiated.  A more systematic and comprehensive documenting of the rituals and cremations is a far more complicated task to achieve and can involve either significant sums of money being exchanged either with these same guides who suggest that a part of the ‘donation’ is used to keep the police from interfering,  or in the attaining of a permit from the local magistrates court.  The final way to take photographs is with the direct permission of relatives,  though this can be more difficult to achieve when relatives are grieving,  misunderstandings with language can occur and the relatives can feel intimidated by ‘authority figures’ at the ghats.

 

It is not always clear exactly why the photography ban is in place for non-Hindus,  though it is entirely understandable that respect for these ancient practices is maintained.  This principle is entirely confused though by the regular offers to tourists of being able to photograph for a fee and it is easy to view this as a cynical means of earning income in complete defiance of their stated  religious beliefs.  To put this into context I was invited to pay 100 euros in return for being able to photograph for 2 hours at Manikarnika,  which I declined.  On one occasion I was threatened with having my camera broken if I did not comply.

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With persistence,  patience and firmness over a period of a little over a month,  and the agreement of several families in the final few days of my contact with Manikarnika,  I have managed to photograph some of the workers,  bereaved relatives, rituals and atmosphere of this unique environment.  I deliberately avoided photographing the pyres directly and the few full burning pyres which can be seen are presented as background props to the wider narrative of the environment.  Some of the images are here and a full set of images will be uploaded in due course on my website.  Photographing here was the main ambition of my journey to Varanasi as an important part of my wish to document ritual worship sites along the river Ganges.  I knew it would be difficult but I entirely underestimated just how difficult it eventually became.

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