My accommodations in Amman also served as temporary housing for families escaping the war in Gaza—about 30 children and 20 adults. The children were as young as a few months old, and the building echoed alternatively with the cries of infants and a chorus of laughter. These Gazan families could flee the war since some of them had lived in Spain for a few years and therefore carried Spanish passports. The Spanish consulate in Amman had negotiated a safe passage with Israel for their nationals from the war zone in Gaza and then facilitated their stay in Amman.
Half in English, half in Spanish and hints of Arabic mixed in, I joined the other guests in playing, drawing, singing, and studying with the children. It was clear they had grown up in a turbulent environment, with several of their drawings bearing images of bloodshed of war. But they also drew other pictures, of beautiful flower bouquets and children holding hands under a resplendent sun.
They responded enthusiastically to the many math tests I created, although after an hour of math lessons, one clever 11-year old girl endearingly quipped, “I escaped the madrasa (school), only to be stuck here again with maths.”
The mini yoga sessions were more popular, with up to 8-10 children participating at times. During meditation, the calm expressions on their faces belied the horrors of the unjust war they had escaped.
At the end of one session a mother asked her daughter, “How do you feel?”
"I feel nothing."
To which the mother replied, “Isn’t that beautiful?”
April 9, 2014
When my friend and I arrived in this village in the Amhara heart of Ethiopia we encountered a very enthusiastic group of boys. Soon after making acquaintances, we were led to their film theater: a tiny, dark, hot room filled with two dozen village folk fixated on an ’80s Indian movie on a 20-inch tele. Most intriguing was their subtitles: an elderly Ethiopian gentleman standing next to the tele and live-translating the movie for the entire audience!
After having to verify the accuracy of his translation, I emerged back into the sunlight only to be lured into a ping-pong match by some boys. Having played a lot in my childhood, I felt fairly confident accepting the challenge.
But this turned out to be no ordinary game. For the growing crowd of spectators it became a matter of national pride—a contest of ‘Ethiopia vs. India.’ My young opponent soon took the lead in our race to eleven points, while the spirited crowd cheered him on. Still, despite a dearth of rubber on my shoes or my bat, I managed to spring back, point by point climbing my way to a tie at ten points. The young ‘Ethiopian lion’ turned gritty, as if resolving to vanquish me. In this moment of high tension in this remote village, his young comrade turned to my counterpart and imparted breathless instructions, “don’t play with the reputation of your country.”
February 6, 2014
This curious boy lives on the banks of the Amazon river in Brazil. His uncle (pictured in the red cap) was my boat captain, and he generously invited me and my friends to his modest home in a beautiful corner of the river.
The boy had very few books, and according to his uncle read and re-read this coloring book daily. Before we left, I rummaged through my backpack and shared with the boy the only pictorial material I could find: a copy of The Economist.
He was delighted to receive the magazine, and kept running his fingers over the different pictures. I wondered if he continued to read with such enthusiasm—absorbing each figure and photo—whether he would grow up to be a libertarian in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.
January 31, 2014
Lalibela, Ethiopia, Church of St. George, 12th-13th century.
If you are asked to design a building, how would you conceive it? Would you imagine a space and enclose it with walls? Or instead, would you imagine a large solid rock, then hollow it out from inside to create space? In the first case, it is the mass of walls which is the reality; in the second it is the cavities within the mass. Even though the most buildings we experience are actually built in the first way, its design could have been envisioned in either of the two ways.
This figure-ground-type distinction is beautifully drawn in a little-known gem originally written in 1959 in Danish by Steen Eiler Rasmussen. According to Rasmussen, some architectural periods work preferably with solids, others with cavities, and how you experience architecture is strongly influenced by this preference of the architect. The Copenhagen Police Headquarters is a modern-day example of such “cavity-minded” architecture, where it appears as if the architect has scooped out solids to create the interior courtyards.
In the ancient city of Lalibela in Ethiopia there are a series of 11 churches that were actually created by forming cavities both inside and outside—by eliminating material out of one enormous rock. Pictured here is the most famous of the 11 churches, the Church of St. George. Here the cavity is what we perceive while the solid rock surrounding it is the background that was left unshaped. When you stand inside the church you not only experience the cavity—the great 13th century monolithic medieval churches built in the Orthodox tradition—but also the pillars supporting the structure, which are part of the rock that were not removed.
January 28, 2014
From my early childhood in India, I remember a world with only two television channels. Such limited supply of entertainment meant that a single soap opera, like the orbit of the moon, synchronized the emotional tides of an entire nation.
Here we see a similar scene playing out in the middle of a very busy Xinjiang bazaar. As the mighty television takes center stage, the waiters have stopped serving, a crowd has formed ringside, and the traffic has come to a halt. While they remain transfixed, no one even notices me deploying my camera into action, quietly turning this audience into the subject you now behold (on your channel).
January 27, 2014
When I read Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk a few years ago, I was ready to switch fields and become an archaeologist. Unfortunately, I was born 100 years too late and many of the rapid, neuron-firing discoveries were already made. This book details the last such exciting discovery–an international race to uncover art treasures of the Silk-Road-era Buddhist kingdom buried for a thousand years beneath the desert sands.
For years the book’s imagery of the ancient Buddhist kingdom filled a large gallery space on the inside walls of my brain. It is what mainly motivated my two-week traversal across Xinjiang, exploring the Silk Road ruins and caves that dot the Taklamakan desert.
Pictured here is one such treasure: a Buddhist stupa in the ancient city of Jiaohe, dating from the Tang dynasty period (over a 1000 years old).
January 26, 2014
My friends often ask me how I composed this shot. While trying to answer their queries accurately and giving them an elaborate description of ‘behind-the-scenes,’ I always forget to tell them why I truly love this picture. This is why I want to share these unverbalized thoughts here.
Like other pictures I shared with you all on the blog this week, this picture is also taken in the Old City of Kashgar. I met these boys playing in one of the narrow alleys outside their home. The boy on the left is of Han descent—the major ethnic group in China that make up about 92 percent of the population—while the boy on the right is of Uyghur descent—a minority Turkic ethnic group concentrated almost exclusively in Western China. The Uyghurs often align themselves with other Central Asian populations due to their Turkic and Islamic heritage, and I even found many households watching Turkish soap operas (without subtitles!).
The accounts in Western media and also in mainstream Chinese news often paint both these ethnic groups sharing an acrimonious relationship. Even several of my clever and thoughtful urban-Chinese friends fearing for my safety, warned me against traveling to Xinjiang.
By contrast, on my visit I met the most warm people, who welcomed me into their homes, and I often found a multitude of ethnic groups living together amicably. And when I see the playful togetherness of the two boys in this picture, I am always reminded of the harmony I found in different corners of Xinjiang.
January 25, 2014
Entering the narrow lanes of Kashgar’s Old City is akin to uncorking a peaty bottle of a rare old whisky in a cozy salon. Your senses aren’t ready for the whiffs of crumbling mud on the wall, or the distant echoes from the tightly-packed maze of alleys. Neither can you suppress the sad realization about the age-old beauty’s fleetingness—which will be soon swallowed in this case by rapid state-sponsored urbanization.
On my walks through the old town, the burdensome sights of demolition (as pictured in the background here) were often punctuated by lovely encounters with the children of Kashgar, who always remained impervious to the rapid transformation taking place around them. I often found it easier to communicate with them, since my rudimentary vocabulary and playfulness was enough for them to connect with me.
After several such walks through the Old City of Kasghar—which is losing about 85 percent of its former-self to the planned modernization project—I wondered about the framework used by policymakers in historical preservation. What cost-benefit analysis do the policymakers conduct before deciding to no longer preserve a historical area or structure? With respect to biodiversity preservation, Prof. Martin Weitzman proposes a ‘Noah’s Arc’ type criteria. His fundamental insight is that apart from the direct benefit of preserving a species, the feasibility of preservation and the cost associated with it, the conservation authorities should also focus on the uniqueness of the species. When I experience the historical architecture, it makes me certain that the Old City of Kasghar will satisfy the uniqueness criteria in anyone’s books. I wonder whether a more thoughtful process to preservation would have let the charms of this ancient city disappear.
January 23, 2014
When someone says, “you can find almost anything on the streets of Kashgar,” they are probably not exaggerating. In this case, since I was using a super wide-angle lens, I respectfully crouched on the street, quite close to the gentleman with the neatly-stacked naan bread in the background. Only then I noticed the nose-piercings on the poor goat, and that at my feet lay four other feet.
January 23, 2014
Walking down the streets of Kashgar, I often got warmly invited into shops and homes to talk. I italicize the word ‘talk’ since patching together a conversation required drawing upon the few Uyghur and Chinese words I picked up, and also upon the tiny collection of Turkish, Arabic, and Farsi words that have percolated into my vocabulary through Hindi-Urdu and other travels.
The writing on the shop window is in the Uyghur language, a Turkic language, that uses the Arabic script, in a predominantly Mandarin-speaking country. An illustration of how the silk road was actually a road traversed by people from many distant lands.