The synagogue of Kabul

IMG-1266There are places that seem to be made of the stuff of legend: you know that they exist, that they are there somewhere, but their physical dimension remains abstract and mysterious.

The synagogue of Kabul is one of those places: over these past years it has been a place that almost only existed in an imaginary space– until recently.

I had read a number of articles about “the last remaining Jew of Kabul”; about his bad temper, his passion for whiskey and about the dispute with another Jew – who died in the meanwhile – to claim the right to be called the last Jew. Many colourful stories, but nothing specific about the synagogue itself.

A few days ago, without too much planning and almost by chance, we manage to visit the synagogue with three of my colleagues. As if following a script, Mr Simantov – the last Jew – answers to our desire to go for a visit with the request of a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. We don’t obviously have any bottle with us on a random Saturday afternoon so we try to negotiate only to hear in return that he does not do things on credit for anyone. We go away a bit disappointed for the missed opportunity. Loneliness, however, must have won Mr Simantov over as he calls us back within a few minutes and says that instead of a bottle, for this one time, he could make do with some cash.

While a lot, or maybe too much, has been written about him, too little has been written about the synagogue.

From the outside the signs of a place of worship are almost non existent; only the eye that already knows where to look will find the stars of David carved out in the windows or decorating the battered turquoise metal gate. At first sight, the door seems to be ajar; it is instead curved up and a bit stuck for being so rarely used. As we look around a bit perplexed, the local cigarette sellers directs us to the back door: you need to go through a bright orange restaurant selling chips and kebabs to reach it. Once you go through the kitchen and cross the building’s threshold the brightness of the neon tubes is replaced by dim light and the stale smell of old fried oil. The turquoise stair railing is an intricate embroidery of iron stars. Hardly anyone climbs up the stairs, the layer of dust is thick and homogeneous.

We spend some time talking to Mr Simantov, who now lives in what used to be the women’s prayer room. It is painted bright green and has a maroon moquette; the gas stove leaks slightly, it makes me cough. Simantov tells us that the synagogue was built in 1966 with the donations from the Jewish community in Herat; he says that in the good old times there used to be hundred and fifty Jewish families living in Kabul. He says it is not because of the Taliban that they left, but because they migrated to Israel and the state of Israel doesn’t give a piss (verbatim) to restore the synagogue that has been damaged by years of conflict. The community itself has never been a target, war has no preference.

We finally get to see the synagogue. Just outside the door there is an old toilet covered in dust and the glass of many windows is broken. We enter and, as we cross the room, our steps leave footprints in the dust. The synagogue doesn’t have a copy of the Torah, but in a cupboard there are old papers and documents eaten up by time and moths. The lamps on the walls are fixed on small plaques that carry the names of the dead.

It is a silent, desolate place. It is abandoned. It is memory’s cemetery, a memento mori, a monument to time.

For those who, like me, work for the preservation of heritage, places like these speak directly to the heart: they are both an accusation and an invite, a request to stop and think. You can’t fight against time, you can’t save every place, every stone, every monument. You need to learn to chose, to let go, to accept that abandon itself has a message to communicate. But then we can, and possibly should, keep telling stories so that these wonderful memory’s cemeteries can continue to survive.

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L’odore di Kabul

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Sono appena atterrata a Kabul dopo più di quattro mesi di assenza, la lontananza più lunga in questi cinque anni.

Mi ricordo che una volta il mio amico Ty, che a quel punto mancava da Kabul da un po’, mi aveva chiesto di raccontargli l’odore di Kabul così come mi colpiva appena atterrata. E’ passato qualche anno e mi sono accorta di non averlo mai fatto: meglio tardi che mai.

La prima cosa che arriva alle narici, “in corpo e spirito,” è la polvere: che sfrega sull’asfalto, che copre le rose, che crea una patina opaca che offusca la vista. E poi c’è l’odore della plastica che si scioglie: sono le guarnizioni dei finestrini delle macchine che aspettano per ore al sole per via del traffico o della mancanza di alberi. A proposito di traffico, i tubi di scappamento delle vecchie e ammaccate Toyota Corolla contribuiscono non poco alla miscela di effluvi. E poi ci sono gli odori che si costruiscono nella testa: quello che viene dal camion di cocomeri passato all’incrocio o quello di sudore e gioventù nello scuolabus pieno di ragazzine bloccato davanti a me, con i finestrini chiusi nonostante il caldo, e che mi hanno fatto compagnia per buona parte della strada con smorfie e linguacce e risate attraverso il vetro. C’è l’odore dell’estate che finisce e dell’autunno che si insinua con quel retrogusto di umido nell’aria e la previsione del nero pungente del fumo delle stufe a segatura. E infine c’è l’odore del ritorno che, nonostante i dubbi e le esitazioni, ti accoglie come un abbraccio di benvenuto da parte di un vecchio amico.

Liberticide

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“It happens slowly, irreparably, slyly. What was the title of that song? Killing me softly. That’s how freedoms are killed – for the most.”

I write on Chapati Mystery about the slow, inexorable curbing of freedoms.

You can find the full article here.

UR/Unreserved

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UR/Unreserved is an arts project stemming from the collaboration between maraa arts collective and Anish Victor. UR/Unreserved embarks on a train journey to investigate the margins of negotiation of identity in contemporary India.

The trigger for the project was an SMS that circulated in Bangalore in 2012 targeting specifically the population of the North Eastern states of India. The message warned the receivers that, had they not left immediately, they would have paid the consequences. The SMS proved to be fake, however, many people fled overnight, by train, fearing for their lives.

Interrogating what it means to belong, how people identify, what are the processes of representation connected to identity, what are the markers that “give away” who people are. These are fundamental questions that urgently need to be addressed in the current political context in India.

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Eight young artists from Karnataka, Kerala, Assam and Kashmir will travel for a month in sleeper coaches and unreserved train compartments engaging fellow travellers in conversations around their own experience of individual and collective identities. Through performative techniques, magic tricks, songs and games they will facilitate the possibility of an exchange around a subject that is now too risky to address with strangers. The material gathered from these conversations will become part of public happenings and of a travelling exhibition.

To make this important arts project possible there is an ongoing crowd-funding campaign.

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To support Unreserved by contributing to cover the production expenses, you can give your contribution here.

Learning to read

I have been studying Dari for a year now and I finally reached a functional level that allows me to ask to change the dynamo of the generator, check with the plumber that the sewage finally works properly and converse with taxi drivers – mostly about God and religion, conversations that – beyond the language barrier, often leave me with questions that I am not capable to answer.

I have learnt the alphabet since the very beginning, but it has only need a week since I started reading out loud.

It made me feel like a little girl again and Sister Fidalma came to mind – she was the incredibly old nun who gave me reading tuitions when I was in school. When I was little, it took me a very long time before I learnt to read properly. My first oculist got my prescriptions wrong and, despite huge baby-pink specs, I could hardly see anything and the letters on the page would hopelessly blur.

It is funny to think now that my first active relationship with books was one of effort and frustration and it makes me happy to look back and see how much things have changed.

Learning to read as an adult is turning into a funding moment in my personal development. It is a humbling experience where I have to look at myself and my limits without filters or excuses: there is no bluff and there is no hiding. Reading out loud a syllable after the other is embarrassing – I have the impression to blush every time I finish reading a word; making banal mistakes is frustrating, but reaching the end of a sentence – exhausted after barely five words – is a priceless and unforgettable pleasure.

Sayed, my fantastic teacher, has found the right balance with me: he pulls my leg and encourages me at the same time, he helps me laugh at my efforts and not to take myself too seriously.

There is so much that we take as a given, we hardly question our abilities and all those things we believe we are entitled to.

Starting from scratch again is reminding me of the importance of humility, of the satisfaction of small steps, and of the genuine joy of simple achievements.

The Pain of Others

I wrote this bulletin a while ago, after coming back from a trip to Kashmir. I think it sums up the how and why I do what I do.

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I have come back from Srinagar a week ago and the voices and details of the city are still vividly present in my memory. The Dal lake, the snow-capped mountains, the windstorm that shook my last night in the city and got mingled with the lamenting voices of women praying to fight their fear.

Srinagar is not leaving me, I would like perhaps some distance, but it has decided to stay with me. The Kashmir of the almost forgotten conflict has crept under my skin.

Agha Shahid Ali, the poet who more than anyone else gave voice to the unique mixture of beauty and brutality that seems to be the essence of the Valley, has been my guide. I have looked at his Valley through the lens of his words. And Srinagar inevitably became also for me the city of daughters: where almost every man has a police record – if not as a suspect, as a spy: it seems, in fact, that there are some 170 thousand spies for a population of 10 million people – and where women make life go on, in silence, away from indiscreet gazes and the clamours of public domain.

And so it is that also the apparent quiet that surrounds Srinagar, the renewed presence of tourists, the rhetoric of the regained stability acquire a new meaning through the verses of

Agha Shahid Ali, who quotes Tacitus: solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant – they make a desolation and call it peace.

It is not the first time that I experience this kind of desolation. It hit me in Palestine, in refugee camps in Iraq and Tunisia, in the slums of Pakistan.

But it seems that this desolation has now come back to claim a long overdue credit.

Of years of stories that I listened to, collected and preserved in my memory. Of tales of lives and places that I visited, felt and shared through my writings.

How can I do justice to so much richness and pain?

How to give proper credit to those who tell you that they feel guilty to be happy when their country is under an oppression that seems to have no end?

How do to sail in this big sea? Where is the compass that leads the path so as to preserve a sensitive eye and yet avoid pitiful sympathy? How can one tell about the power of human dignity without risking the objectifying gaze of the anthropologist who looks for truths?

Questions multiply and answers seem to slip away.

Hitting the road is the only solution I know: the source of more questions that animate the quest for more answers.

The road and a desire for care, dedication and attention – in my words and politics – towards the people and places that have told and continue telling me these stories.

Il dolore degli altri

Ho scritto questo bollettino qualche tempo fa, di ritorno da un viaggio in Kashmir. Racconta in qualche modo quello il perché e il come di quello che faccio.

***

Sono tornata da Srinagar da una settimana, ma le voci, le sfumature, i dettagli della città sono ancora presenti e vividi nella memoria. Il lago Dal, le montagne innevate all’orizzonte, la tempesta di vento che ha scosso la mia ultima notte in città inframmezzata dalle voci lamentose delle donne in preghiera per sconfiggere la paura.

Srinagar non mi lascia, forse vorrei una tregua e invece resta con me.

Il Kashmir del conflitto di cui non si parla mi si è infilato sotto la pelle.

Srinagar_01Agha Shahid Ali, il poeta che più di ogni altro ha dato voce alla mescolanza unica di bellezza e brutalità che sembra essere l’essenza del paese, mi ha fatto da guida: ho visto i suoi luoghi attraverso la lente delle sue parole e Srinagar è diventata inevitabilmente anche per me la città delle figlie, dove quasi tutti gli uomini sono schedati dalla polizia se non come sospettati allora come spie – sembrano ce ne siano cento settanta mila in un paese dove gli abitanti sono dieci milioni – e dove le donne portano avanti la vita, in silenzio, fuori dagli sguardi indiscreti e dai clamori della dimensione pubblica.

Ed è così che anche la calma apparente che avvolge Srinagar, la rinnovata presenza di turisti, la retorica della riconquistata stabilità prendono significato dai versi di Agha Shahid Ali, che cita Tacito: solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant – portano desolazione e la chiamano pace.

Non è la prima volta che faccio esperienza di questa desolazione, mi ha colpito in Palestina, nei campi di sfollati in Iraq e in Tunisia, negli slum del Pakistan.

Ma sembra che questa volta sia tornata a chiedere il conto.

Di anni di storie ascoltate, raccolte e conservate nella memoria. Di vite raccontate, di posti visti, sentiti e condivisi attraverso le parole.

Come fare giustizia a tanta ricchezza e tanto dolore?

Come dare il giusto credito a chi ti dice che si sente in colpa ad essere felice quando il proprio paese è vittima di un’oppressione che non sembra avere via d’uscita?

Come si naviga in questo mare? Dove è la bussola che guida il mio percorso in modo da conservare la delicatezza dello sguardo ed evitare un morboso senso di pena? Come si racconta la potenza della dignità umana senza l’atteggiamento oggettivante di un antropologo a caccia di verità?

Le domande si moltiplicano e le risposte sembrano sfuggire.

La strada è l’unica soluzione che conosco: la fonte di altre domande che porta al desiderio di cercare altre risposte.

La strada e un desiderio di cura, di dedizione e di attenzione – nella politica e nelle parole – per le persone e i luoghi che mi hanno raccontato e continuano a raccontarmi queste storie.

Mountains, Mines and Memories: The Idea of Kurdistan

Ty Mayfield reviewed Picnic in a Minefield for War on the Rocks.picnic-cover

Here is a teaser:

Recchia is an Italian academic who left Europe for a position at the University of Kurdistan Hawler (UKH) in Erbil, Iraq in the hopes of expanding her professional horizons as an educator. In the course of two years, Recchia experiences life in many different circles. She transitions between guest, traveler, teacher, and mentor with an ease that disarms those who might stand in her way. It is from the unique perspectives of both her professional work at the UKH and her personal interactions with locals that Kurdistan is made real for the reader. Through Recchia’s travels, the soldiers, diplomats, journalists and humanitarian aid workers that usually narrate our collective Iraq experience, are illuminated for the reader from a new perspective. She reports their actions, thoughts and intentions in the insightful and articulate observations of a self-aware and humble narrator.

Recchia set out for Iraqi Kurdistan in search of herself. Along the way it is fair to say she found an entire group of people in search of themselves, their own identities, and perhaps, their own nation. These two arcs, one individual and one collective, intersect in Picnic in a Minefield and provide a compelling narrative that gives insight into the permanence of resistance, the pace of change, and the promise of a Kurdistan.
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You can read the full review here.

Khaakbaad

L’autunno a Kabul è una stagione preziosa. Mentre scrivo, vedo nel giardino le ultime rose: quelle ancora fiorite sono rosa e rosse; i tre alberi di mele cotogne carichi di frutti che stanno pian piano maturando; la pergola con i pochi grappoli d’uva che hanno resistito alla grandinata dell’altro giorno; e le macchie rosso sangue dei frutti del melograno, piccoli quest’anno, ma pieni di succo.

La percezione del cambiamento è quotidiana, annunciata in modo teatrale da mezzora di grandine. Chissà perché solo una all’anno, la terza da quando sono qui, veloce e violenta segna il passaggio da una stagione all’altra.

La temperatura si abbassa, le giornate si accorciano, mi ostino a dormire ancora con la finestra aperta e ad uscire senza calzini – anche perché mi sono dimenticata le scarpe in Italia, ma questa è un’altra storia.

Con l’autunno arrivano anche le tempeste di sabbia, che qui hanno anche un nome tutto loro, khaakbaad, che letteralmente significa vento di polvere. Anche queste improvvise e passeggere – coprono tutto di una coltre marroncina, una tosse, uno starnuto e vanno via. Poi tornano, ma il passaggio è sempre breve e mai annunciato.

Mi domando perché finisco sempre per andare a vivere in paesi in cui le tempeste di sabbia sono una parte integrante del paesaggio e della conversazione.

Sono passati esattamente sei anni dal primo bollettino che ho spedito, era il 14 ottobre del 2008, e allora come adesso scrivo di tempeste di sabbia. Buffo.

Sei anni fa, raccontavo così le mie prime impressioni di Erbil:

Montagne e deserto… una combinazione incredibile e mozzafiato che non smette mai di sorprendere: le montagne si alzano all’improvviso sempre un po’ inafferrabili attraverso la foschia. L’aria infatti non è mai limpida; una sabbia del colore e della finezza della cipria copre ogni cosa e rende l’aria quasi palpabile (e i miei capelli della consistenza della paglia…)”

Montagne, deserto e tempeste di sabbia: strani elementi ricorrenti che danno forma e colore a tutti questi anni di viaggi, simboli inaspettati delle mie nomadi geografie dell’affetto.

Khaakbaad

Autumn in Kabul feels very special.

As I write I see in the garden the last blooming roses, the ones that are left are red and pink. The three quince trees are full of ripening fruits; the grapes that survived the hailstorm are waiting to be picked; and the blood-red pomegranates, which are smaller this year, are full of juice.

In this time of the year you can feel the changes day after day. The season begins quite theatrically announced by a hailstorm that lasts just about half an hour. I wonder why hailstorms only happen once a year – it is the third since I arrived, they are quick and violent and they visibly mark the passage between the seasons.

After the storm, in fact, temperature drops, days become shorter, yet I still insist in sleeping with an open window and wear no socks – well, also because I forgot my shoes in Italy, but that’s a different story…

Autumn brings with dust storms, which here have their own name: khaakbaad that literally means wind of dust. Even these storms are sudden and transient – they cover everything in a brownish coat, trigger a cough, a sneeze and then go. But they come back, once again sudden, and always unannounced.

I wonder why I always end up living in places where dust storms are an integral part of the landscape and the conversation.

It is exactly six years since I sent out my first bulletin, it was the 14th of October 2008, then like now I wrote about sand storms. Funny.

Six years ago, in that first bulletin, I wrote about my first impressions of Erbil:

Here is all mountains and desert: an incredible and breathtaking combination that keeps surprising me. Mountains rise all of a sudden, a bit blurred in the murky air. The sky is never clear: there is always a fine and powdery sand that covers everything, making air almost palpable – and my hair feeling like straw.”

Mountains, deserts and dust storms: strange recurring elements that give shape and colour to all these years of travels, unexpected symbols of my nomadic geographies of affection.