Migrant Photography: I am Sorry

Reuters won Pulitzer for photography of migrant crisis. Till here it is just a another piece of news, but then you contemplate the photos and it becomes more than just news: it becomes tragedy. Human failure has a name, it has a face, it has a life of its own that transcends national borders and dwarfs whatever discourse no matter how elegantly put. I am ashamed. I am sorry.

A selection of the winning photos:

REUTERS PULITZER PRIZE BREAKING NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY ENTRY

An overcrowded inflatable boat with Syrian refugees drifts in the Aegean sea between Turkey and Greece after its motor broke down off the Greek island of Kos, August 11, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

REUTERS PULITZER PRIZE BREAKING NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY ENTRY

A Syrian refugee holding a baby in a life tube swims towards the shore after their dinghy deflated some 100m away before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, September 13, 2015. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

REUTERS PULITZER PRIZE BREAKING NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY ENTRY

Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, August 27, 2015. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

REUTERS PULITZER PRIZE BREAKING NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY ENTRY

Migrants and refugees beg Macedonian policemen to allow passage to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia during a rainstorm, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

REUTERS PULITZER PRIZE BREAKING NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY ENTRY

Hungarian policemen stand over a family of immigrants who threw themselves onto the track before they were detained at a railway station in the town of Bicske, Hungary, September 3, 2015. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

REUTERS PULITZER PRIZE BREAKING NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY ENTRY

Syrian refugees walk through the mud as they cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

 

 

IONIA: THE FIRST PHYSICISTS

“It all started with the mass migration of Greeks early in the first millennium B.C., when they left their homeland in mainland Greece and migrated eastward across the Aegean, settling on the coast of Asia Minor and its offshore islands. Three Greek tribes e involved in this migration –the Aeolians to the north, the Ionians in the center, and the Dorians in the south- and together they produced the first flowering of Greek culture. The Aeolians gave birth to the lyric poet Sappho; the Ionians to Homer and the natural philosophers Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes; and the Dorians to Herodotus, the “Father of History.”

The Ionians ended up with the best location in Asia Minor and the Ionian colonies soon organized themselves into a confederation called the Dodecapolis.

Miletus greatly surpassed all of the other Ionian cities in its maritime ventures and commerce, founding its first colonies in the eighth century B.C. on the shores on the Black Sea. During the next two centuries Miletus was far more active in colonization than any other city-state in the Greek world, founding a total of thirty cities around the Black Sea. Miletus also had a trading station at Naucratis, the Greek emporium on the Nile delta founded circa 650 B.C. Meanwhile other Greek cities had established colonies around the western shores of the Mediterranean, the densest region of settlement being in southern Italy and Sicily, which became known as Magna Graecia, or Great Greece.

The far-ranging maritime activities of the Milesians brought them into contact with older and more advanced civilizations in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt, from which the Greeks returned with ideas as well as goods. Herodotus writes that “the Egyptians by their study of astronomy discovered the solar year and were the first to divide it into twelve parts –and in my opinion their method of calculation is better than the Greek.

The trade routes of the Milesians also took them to Mesopotamia where they probably acquired the knowledge of astronomy they needed for celestial navigation and timekeeping. They obtained the gnomon, or shadow maker, in Mesopotamia, according to Herodotus, who says that knowledge of the sundial and the gnomon and the twelve divisions of the day came into Greece from Babylon.

The Ionian Greeks soon progressed far beyond their predecessors intellectually, particularly in Miletus, which in the last quarter of the sixth century B.C. gave birth to the first three philosophers of nature. Aristotle referred to them physikoi, or phyicists, from the Greek physis, meaning “nature” in its widest sense, contrasting them with earlier theologi, or theologians, for they were the first who tried to explain phenomena on natural rather than supernatural grounds.”

Excerpt from Aladdin’s Lamp by John Freely

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Palmyra: Terrorists as un-civilizing agents

One photo really is worth a thousand words and, at times, a thousand tears.‎

In an article published today by Spain’s El País (International), the photographer Joseph Eid holds a photo of the ‎great Arch of Triumph of Palmyra taken back in 14 March 2014 against the very same ‎landscape today. Daesh (aka ISIS) has been systematically destroying and looting Syrian and Iraqi sites, ‎and the aforementioned 3rd century Arch of Triumph is no exception: it was destroyed in the ‎‎2015 offensive. ‎

Photos like this bring to mind memories of destroyed heritage sites in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere in the Middle East; an eerie reminder of a human condition that could be described borrowing Kundera’s words: ‘the unbearable ‎lightness of being’. These images leave me feeling an emptiness as profound as the void left by the ‎dynamited Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan; a pain exceeded only by the daily news about ‎refugees and migrants fleeing for their life and risking it all because they have nothing left to lose.‎

You can watch more photos here.

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Lope de Vega: Spain’s Shakespeare

Lope de Vega was to Spanish theatre what Shakespeare was to English theatre: a revelation, a godfather and a trendsetter. Famous for his play ‘Fuenteovejuna’, Lope de Vega was one of the key figures of Spain’s Golden Age (Siglo de Oro), a long period of unparalleled artistic and literary flourishment that would produce the liked of Luis de Góngora, Velázquez, Cervantes and Quevedo. So profound was the mark that Lope de Vega left on Spanish literature that Cervantes called him a ‘monster of Nature’, supposedly, for having written more than 1000 plays.

Love & treason are central to many of Lope de Vega’s works, and it should come as no surprise: A failed romance followed by a failed attempt to avenge himself provoked his banishment from Madrid for 8 years. Later on, following the death of his wife, his life would become a rollercoaster of emotional adventures and affairs.

I leave you with these quotes from his play, ‘The Knight from Olmedo’, a moving drama of love and fatalism:

 

“When her lovely feet had touched the valley’s flowers,

they grew in such profusion that heavens exchanged their stars for them.”

 

“The key to her heart,

You’d have to turn it thirty times at least,

and yet I think I have the master-key,

which is to say,

I love her,

which opens every woman’s heart.”

 

“They say that sorrows thought of in advance are doubly sorrowful.”

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The Mediterranean & Raft of the Medusa

When Théodore Géricault, an icon of French Romanticism, painted his ‘Raft of the Medusa’ back in  1818, he didn’t know he was immortalizing a horrific tragedy in which a group of French people were left on a makeshift raft in the middle of the ocean with no means to navigate and no supplies to keep them alive, while the rich were carried to safety in lifeboats following the catastrophe that had befallen their ship. What followed was a dark drama that ended up in ‘survival of the fittest’. Everything was fair game for the survivors, starting with throwing the weak and the wounded into the sea, and ending with cannibalism (because, who said romanticism was about ‘romance’?).

Almost two centuries have passed since Théodore Géricault had depicted this event based, in part, on the discussion he held with some of the survivors. The painting was so intense that the great Eugène Delacroix willingly posed as model for one of the dead figures in the artwork (face down, arm stretched in the middle). Géricault chose a dramatic moment to capture, namely that in which the survivors spot a ship. Hope of deliverance breathes life into half-dead bodies and souls, and the raft turns into a ghastly theatre of earthly horrors. Expectedly, the painting eventually became a universal icon of human struggle for survival and facing the unknown.

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Some 200 years after, one is flooded every day with images of migrant boats and drowned refugees. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 3770 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in attempts to reach Europe in 2015 (an average of 10 people / day). I came across a photo that shows a group of Syrian refugees finally reaching the shore after an epic journey across the sea, Mare Nostrum which has become Cemetery Nostrum. The photo supposedly gained some award (I don’t know the photographer), but this is not the important thing. The important thing is that it captures an extreme human condition of mixed feelings following an impossible odyssey. How would Théodore Géricault paint this tragic moment had he been among us today? What other icons of human failure should we be adding to our collection?

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The Adventures of Don Quixote

“You must endeavour to write in such a manner as to convert melancholy into mirth, increase good humour, entertain the ignorant, excite the admiration of the learned, escape the contempt of gravity, and attract applause from persons of ingenuity and taste.” – From the Preface of Don Quixote

This might indeed be the endeavour that Cervantes undertook while writing his epic masterpiece, Don Quixote; possibly Spain’s greatest literary achievement, and the most incredible window that one could ever peer through into the turbulent 17th century in Spain and the Mediterranean: omnipresence of the church, widespread superstition, contempt to the moors and the Jews, fear of the corsairs, sharp divide between social strata, strong ideas about proper conduct, etc.

Having recently finished reading this epic work, I can fairly claim that no one could possibly understand -at least in part- the roots of the Spanish culture without first reading Don Quixote. How else would you understand sayings like ‘de la ceca a la mecca’ (from Ceca to Mecca) or ‘Santiago, y cierra España’ (Saint James, and strike for Spain) or ‘más perdió el rey godo’ (bigger was the loss of the Visigoth King)?

Through one episode after another, the novel is structured around countless chivalric tales, impossible loves, acts of wizardry, parables on virtue and vice, all wrapped in a vivid proto-costumbrismo that would characterize many literary and artistic works of the Spanish Golden Age (Siglo de Oro).

Cervantes masterfully incorporates different literary resources and tricks of composition as he swiftly sets in the footsteps of Don Quixote. He tells us that the storyteller that recorded the adventures of Don Quixote is a moor called ‘Cid Hamet Benengeli’, which is probably a playful reference to himself (Cid means Master in Arabic, Hamet could be an interpretation of Miguel, and Benengeli can be Ibn al-Ayel or Son of the Deer, an Arabic equivalent to Cervant-es). While this resource is, clearly, a meta-fictional instrument, one can only wonder why he chose a moor as his storyteller despite all the derision that he expresses towards the moors and the moriscos throughout the novel. The influence of the Italian novella is unmistakable in some parts, and so is that of pastoral songs and epic poems, and yet Cervantes creates an unparalleled work that is totally and unmistakably his, complete with autobiographical elements that allude to his captivity in Algeria.

Throughout the novel, we enjoy the adventures of a delusional self-proclaimed knight-errant (Don Quixote) and his simpleton-yet-witty squire, who devoutly follows his master in the hope of a reward that never comes (Sancho Panza). Wherever he goes, Don Quixote shows himself to be a madman and draws everyone’s attention and curiosity, yet his gentle and gallant character never fails to impress. Probably the most sober -and to my taste, sad- moment in the novel comes as Don Quixote realizes towards the end of the story, and just before his death, that he had been afflicted with a serious madness that he attributed to his obsession with knights and their false stories. A man can spend his entire life engaged in heroic battles, only to realize when it’s already too late that it was all nothing but a chasing after the wind (and fighting against windmills!). This takes us back to one of the most powerful ‘images’ of the novel, in which a curate and a barber, both of them friends that are genuinely concerned about Don Quixote and his mental health, hold a mini-Inquisition for the chivalry books in possession of Don Quixote!

Finally, I would like to share with you some quotes from Don Quixote:

“In the midst of this their conversation, they discovered thirty or forty windmills all together on the plain, which the knight no sooner perceived, than he said to his squire, ‘Chance has conducted our affairs even better than we could either wish or hope for; look there, friend Sancho, and behold thirty or forty outrageous giants, with whom, I intend to engage in battle, (…) for it is a meritorious warfare, and serviceable both to God and man, to extirpate this race from the face of the earth.”

“I cannot conceive how falsehood is able to ape truth so exactly.”

“Where is the merit in a woman’s being chaste, when nobody ever courted her to be otherwise? What wonder, that she should be reserved and cautious, who has no opportunity of indulging loose inclinations, and who knows her husband would immediately put her to death, should he once catch her tripping?”

“Nothing sooner successes in overthrowing the embattled towers of female vanity, than vanity itself, employed by the tongue of adulation.”

“While we enjoy our meal, let every harlot mind her spinning-wheel.”

“Hunger is the best sauce, and as that is never wanting among the poor, they always relish what they eat.”

Illustration by Gustave Doré

The Capitoline Crime: Boxing up Nudity

In 1565, the Italian artist Andrea da Volterra was commissioned to ‘cover the genitals’ of the painted figures in Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’ at the Sistine Chapel with painted loincloths because the Pope at the time could not tolerate this nudity at the heart of the Vatican. One should never forget that the Italian Renaissance had its antiheros and antagonists, or how else would we understand the discourse of someone like Savonarola and his infamous Bonfire of the Vanities in plain quttrocento?

That was centuries ago, and you would think we have learned our lessons, especially in Italy, where classical humanism was revived and where art is at home, but the devil always lurks behind the cross, and economic interests happen to speak louder than aesthetic drives. Such was the case when, earlier this week, some Italian officials forgot that in art, sometimes, covering naked bodies is more profane than exposing them. They covered up the nude statues in Rome’s Capitoline Museum so as not to offend the Iranian President who was on an official visit; they ‘boxed up’ part of the heritage of an entire -great- nation to satisfy the taste of one man whose country ranks where it ranks on every human rights abuse list (a very unworthy heir of a great Persian Civilization).

 Italy did not build its glory and did not gain its status in the hearts of intellectuals and art lovers by renouncing and hiding its heritage, even if the price is billions of dollars in deals with oil-rich countries with filthy hands and twisted taste. The assault against art that covering up the nude statues represents is, to my mind, the epitome of a failed intercultural dialogue, and one can only remember this Ovid’s quote: ‘beauty is a fragile gift’.

 If we want to honor their immortal quality, fragile gifts should not be handled by shaky hands. Do not shy away from what is yours to please he who does not appreciate, because in denying Christ thrice, Peter was no less criminal than Judas.

The Dying Gaul